Have you ever bumped up against a piece of media and felt utterly compelled to share it with as many people as possible? I have a couple odd films and books that I’m wont to regularly recommend — but nothing has ever turned me into a veritable door-to-door salesman like Plebs.
Premiering on ITV2 back in 2013 to critical acclaim, Plebs is a sitcom set in ancient Rome with more crackling British humor than you can shake a spear at. The first three seasons, which are available stateside on Hulu, follow the daily struggles, foibles, and short-lived victories of Marcus (Tom Rosenthal), Stylax (Joel Fry), and their slave Grumio (Ryan Sampson), who bluster their way through Roman living to varying degrees of success. In the tradition of Blackadder and Horrible Histories, Plebs gleefully blends historical fact and anachronistic modern snark; “that’s Thracist” is a joke that could only exist on this show.
Word on the news beat is that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s production company Point Grey Pictures is developing a US version of Plebs in collaboration with Rise Films, who produced the UK original. If Rogan and Goldberg seem an unlikely pair, 1) I refer you to the success story that is AMC’s Preacher, and 2) the description of the most recent series of Plebs sees “acquiring an abandoned toilet” and “opening a wine bar” in the same sentence. All to say: Point Grey might be exactly the right boys for the job.
In any case, there’s no better time to get familiar with the UK original. So, zealous media missionary that I am: slap on some Dave & Ansell Collins, or some Toyan, or Derrick Morgan — here’s why you should be watching Plebs.
1. When in Rome
If you throw a rock at British programming, you’re liable to hit about five different coming-of-age comedies about a ragtag group of friends looking for love and validation in the big city. But I can pretty well guarantee that Plebs is the only one set in ancient Rome. The Rome of Plebs is vibrant, bright, and has more in common with a bawdy ancient mosaic than the washed-out, visual solemnity of Empire, Spartacus, or HBO’s Rome. It feels like the result of Monty Python getting locked in a writers room with naught but VHS tapes of Eugen Weber’s The Western Tradition (how else to explain the most British exploration of an orgy ever syndicated?).
The bathhouses, opulent equestrian mansions, forums, and lower class apartment blocks are all lovingly rendered with attention to historical detail and juxtaposing modern irreverence. And at the end of the day, whether or not the ancient Romans actually covered cocktail party staff in whipped cream is a lot less important than the fact that it feels true to the world of the show.
2. The Cast
While Plebs has a lot going for it — it’s main strength is its cast. Each character manages to be their own brand of crazy while still gelling believably with the rest of the ensemble. There’s Marcus (Rosenthal), a self-interested, type-a cut from the same cloth as David Mitchell’s Mark Corrigan. Offsetting Marcus we have Stylax (Fry), a ladies man prone to horrible sex accidents. And rounding out the threesome is Sampson’s Grumio, whose simultaneously lackadaisical and feisty performance is nothing short of a revelation. It must be seen to be believed. Joining the boys are a host of supporting roles, from fish-out-of-water thespian Cynthia (Sophie Colquhoun), to the boys’ curt and kinky boss Flavia (Doon Mackichan), to a brilliantly bureaucratic Adrian Scarborough and the hilariously hatable Aurelius/Water
boyman (Tom Basden, one of the show’s writers).
3. The Guests
I like to imagine that when you are tasked with casting a British TV show you gain access to a secret UK-comedian summoning Bat-signal. Or maybe there’s a listserv…or some ravens. The prolific Maureen Lipman shows up as Landlady (a coup against Karl Theobald’s very funny Landlord); Danny Dyer of EastEnders fame has a very memorable turn as Cassius, the fatally love-sick gladiator; Simon Callow plays Victor the Gracchi, a bumbling, wig-wearing politician; Tim Key kills it as the psychotic rival slave Mushki; and living legend Miriam Margolyes pops in as a famous playwright. But for my money, the real standout guest spot is that of Alex Macqueen as Brother Quintus, the leader of a, um, intense, religious sect.
4. The Gags
When I recommend Plebs to friends I tend to peddle individual episodes to them: “oh you have to see the one where Grumio accidentally joins a cult”; “start with the one where Stylax gets an STD.” Plebs radiates proof of concept like the goddamn sun. Within five seconds you’ll be hit with a ska/rocksteady music transition, a sight gag, or a play on the imagined Latin plural of the word banana. Game. Set. Match.
5. Are You Not Edutained?
The first time I encountered Plebs was in an ancient Roman sociology class. The prof had decided to outsource part of his lecture to an episode aptly titled “The Gladiator” which sees Marcus attempting to torpedo Cynthia’s new relationship with an intimidating net-fighter by rigging the tournament. When the prof tried to turn it off after he’d made his point, the class revolted. Such is the power of Plebs.
Plebs may not boast an educational agenda, but as The Guardian notes, all things considered, it’s surprisingly accurate. In 27 BC, when the show is set, Rome was the center of the universe (to the Romans, at least). Tenant situations were cramped and dodgy, and some slave owners did, in fact, develop friendly relationships with their indentured servants. Another thing the show gets right is that Rome was truly, truly filthy; wrought with graffiti and caked in all kinds of muck, guck, and ambiguous sludge. So, who knows, amidst all the dick jokes you might just learn something.
6. The Rocksteady-Ska Soundtrack
Plebs’ soundtrack is part ska, part rocksteady and somehow, it tells you absolutely everything you need to know about the show. Sure, historically, ska has zero business providing the backing track of a show set in ancient Rome. But Plebs’ soundtrack is the musical equivalent of that weird food combination you discovered drunk late at night that shouldn’t work, but against all odds, is a match made in heaven. Featuring everything from The Valentines to the Baba Brooks Band, Plebs’ soundtrack is catchy, bright, and contextually irreverent. It’s completely perfect.
American viewers can catch Plebs series 1, 2, and 3 on Hulu. Which should keep you occupied in time for series 4 to eventually make its way stateside.