It's an era of history that fascinates because of the twisted nature of Commodus. Many historians mark Commodus' reign as the start of the Western Empire's descent. Edward Gibbon famously remarked that history's most happy and prosperous period ended with Commodus' accession, so dramatizing his reign, if done well, is sure-fire entertainment. So does Netflix do it well? Reviews have been generally positive. My thoughts are a little more mixed on it, and while I can't whole-heartedly recommend it, I think it does several things well.
The inclusion and integration of the historians was well done. Too often in shows/series like this, the 'talking head' portion feels like an afterthought and may not mesh well with what is being dramatized or narrated. Fortunately, the list of historians they include was first rate, as was the choice of Sean Bean as the narrator (finally, a role in which he doesn't die). Now that I think about it, Bean was probably the best part of the series. Between the historians and the drama, though, Bean's role shouldn't have been the normal 'narrator' job although that was how it was written. The historians tell us what's going to happen or sum up what what just happened, the actors show us what happens, so that leaves the job narrator to do... what? Beyond providing a bridge between scenes or filling in additional information, too often Bean is telling us exactly what we're about to see or what the historians are about to tell us.
Regarding the drama portion, the actors are fine and seem to be doing their best with clunky writing, which goes on way too long for many scenes. At the end of the series I felt like it would have been much better at about half the length, with most of the cuts coming from the drama part of the show. Cutting Commodus pouring a drink or drinking from his cup would have shortened the series by one episode alone. Too often the scenes felt too drawn out, too long, and too superfluous. The acting was fine considering what they were given. I do have to mention my wife initially stopped based on Aaron Jakubenko's looks: "Ooh, what's this?" But she did stick around because of interest in the underlying story. Or so she said.
The show's rating is TV-Mature, which it needs for the violence (usually implied more than shown), language (on occasion), and gratuitous nudity. Ordinarily I'd feel like an old fart for typing that last one, but too often those scenes definitely had a feel of "we're including it because we can." I can appreciate the difficulty in writing and incorporating all three elements: narration, historians, and drama. Now that budgets have grown for the last part, where live actors are no longer background visuals for a voiceover, it's going to be a challenge to integrate all three together and make the final product work.
Again, I hesitate to fully recommend it. The historical period covered is fascinating and definitely can use the improvements in historical accuracy provided. The lack of integration between the dramatic portion with the narration and historian commentary, though, is what causes my wavering. I would have loved this to succeed better at it. I am intrigued at this being listed as Season One. There is so much to mine and use from the Roman Empire in such a format. Here's hoping they are able to improve the series.
Update: I wish I had seen this article at Decider earlier. One of the fascinating thing about Commodus' reign is his sister's involvement in the assassination plot to kill him. Just what did she hope to gain if he died? From the article:
Roman Empire: Reign of Blood portrays Lucilla as an ever-pouting, constantly-scheming, brilliant political operative fond of plunging necklines. She’s played with stone cold power by Kiwi actress Tai Berdinner-Blades.