Before "The Sopranos" promoted a negative stereotype of Italians, before the "Game of Thrones" families taught the world how to stab each one another in the back, and before those "Downton Abbey" folks showed off the cushier side of period dramas, there was "I, Claudius," the 1976 BBC series that tells the story of Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome. Combining Roman history with campy, soapy melodrama, "I, Claudius" is a must-see for TV fans and history buffs alike.
Come on, check out these opening titles and try to say this show doesn't seem like a good time:
The series premieres this Sunday at 9 p.m. In order to ensure that you get the most from your "I, Claudius" opportunity, KCET is recapping the show's most important parts: the historical context and the juicy bits. Read on for highlights, and fill in the blanks in case you missed the previous episode.
The pilot episode of "I, Claudius" is filled with campy goodness. Claudius (Derek Jacobi) begins the story by explaining that we will be witnessing the history of his life, beginning with background from before he was even born. At some point we see a trip his trip to the Sybil, a weird clairvoyant prophetess in a gold mask with a penchant for rhyming. (Hit the nail on the head there, BBC. I'm sure that's true to history.) The Sybil tells Claudius of Rome's fate and he doesn't seem pleased.
Here's what you need to know: The story goes back to the period immediately after Julius Caesar's murder, when his successor Augustus (Brian Blessed) was still emperor of Rome. Augustus's friend, Marcus Agrippa (John Paul) is at odds with Augustus's son-in-law, Marcellus (Christopher Guard), Caesar Augustus' son-in-law. Agrippa is miffed, and he feels his life-long friend is favoring the young boy, especially because Marcellus has been promoted to City Magistrate.
Meanwhile, Livia (Sian Phillips), whom we learn is Claudius' grandmother, is scheming while Augustus has left Rome for five months. Agrippa has left too. A social climber, Livia is plotting ways for her family to move up even higher, and that means bringing her son up through the ranks, too. Her plots come to pass, and Marcellus soon dies of "mysterious" food poisoning. Rome breaks out into hysterics and riots. The citizens need Agrippa back to maintain order. He comes back under one condition: He marries Augustus' daughter Julia (Frances White), who was married to Marcellus but who is now a widow. Sucks for Livia, who wants her son, Tiberius (George Baker) to be with Julia, but Augustus agrees.
The juice (A.K.A. that awkward moment when):
Any time Marcus Agrippa and August embrace, it gets uncomfortable. It's almost as if they think they are convincing each other of their friendship with the sincerity of each hug, but it's so painful awkward that no one is persuaded.
Livia slaps Julia across the face when the latter goes hysterical over Marcellus' death, which is possibly the best part of the episode. "How dare you mourn the loss of your husband, Julia!" Oh Livia, not everyone can be as soulless and manipulative as you.
The Line of the night:
The bitterness that was the exchange between the Greek storyteller Aristarchus and a Roman usher during the festival scene. Someone was upset about the state of the theater.
Usher: "Everyone is an actor in Rome. There's just isn't enough work to go around."
Aristarchus: "And what there is goes to friends and relatives. It's the same everywhere."
Having trouble differentiating one toga-wearing Brit from another? Then check out our "I, Claudius" character guide here.