by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & Rome (Sundays, 9 pm, HBO) & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & alk about the fall of Rome. After an addictive first season, HBO's mega-budgeted recreation of Caesar's times is a caricature of its former self. Maybe HBO producers decided that the more cruel and unusual, the better -- after all, somebody has to take the gross-out prize away from Deadwood. Killing the tyrant at the end of Season One didn't solve any problems, and only bloodshed follows -- usually in the form of poorly staged battles scenes. Season Two is bloodier and way more cynical than last year.

The first season was excellent because character came first: Julius Caesar, especially, as played by Ciarin Hinds (Munich) drove the story. Caesar's face was an unsolved mystery; Hinds let you wonder how history might have been different had Caesar lived. The show was also strong for its depictions of exotic, pre-Jesus religion and peeks at how the lower classes probably lived (badly). The ongoing catfight between Atia (Octavian's mother) and Servilia (Brutus's mother) was also very compelling. But Season One really belonged to Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) -- lowly soldiers who managed to intersect with the big events of their times. It's a storytelling device used by Kurosawa and George Lucas, and here it was perfect -- and Stevenson was riveting.

But this year there's no Caesar, only his dull heir, Octavian, outscheming Brutus and Marc Antony. Atia and Servilia's fight has gone to the dark side, with Servilia enduring a bloody torture session and Atia written as such an evil bitch they could have hired a cardboard cut-out instead of Polly Walker. And worst of all, the unpredictable Pullo of Season One has been turned into a giant teddy bear of a guy.

James Purefoy's Marc Antony is the lone redeeming character -- if being the most cynical killer of them all can be a redeeming quality. Antony's part is written over-the-top like Atia's, but Purefoy chews it up with gusto. His scenes almost make Rome worthwhile.

In this Rome, the Italians all speak with English accents and throw in lots of F-bombs. It's a nasty, amoral place, where people did unspeakable things all for the good of the Republic. In Season One, I cared. In Season Two, I keep hoping the Germanic hordes will come to my rescue and cancel Rome.


House Hunters International

HGTV's most addictive show has gone international, and seeing how people live in places like Spain, England and even Venezuela makes for surprisingly captivating television. Every episode, a buyer gets three choices. This episode features a search for a condo in Rome. (Friday, 3/2, 10:30 pm, HGTV)

Dukes of Hazzard:

The Beginning

Did you ever wonder how Luke and Bo got The General Lee, how they first met Boss Hogg or why Jessica Simpson was cast in the 2005 film version of the strangely beloved TV series? This prequel won't answer that last question, but it does have Willie Nelson as Uncle Jesse. (Sunday, 3/4, 8 pm and 10 pm, ABC Family)

WCC Basketball Championship

See if the Zags can make it to the NCAA Tournament without Josh Heytvelt -- if they win this game (and they have to make it into the final with a win on Sunday first), they're automatically in the field of 64. Watching Jeremy Pargo makes it easier to forget about having a big guy in the middle. (Monday, 3/5, 6 pm, ESPN)

Winter Market at the Pavilion @ Pavilion at Riverfront

Wednesdays, 3-7 p.m. Continues through Dec. 22
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