Accuracy or dramatic flair?
Just what do we want from a historical epic?
It's a question that makes some critics froth at the mouth with the premiere of every historical miniseries or show, from HBO's painstakingly researched Rome to Starz's saucy Spartacus and Showtime's downright naughty The Borgias.
The question will no doubt be raised again this weekend when Spike unveils its first major scripted production, Tut, a largely enjoyable, if uneven three-night epic about one of the best-known rulers from Ancient Egypt: Tutankhamun. He came to power around 1332 B.C. when he was 9 years old and died a decade later.
Starring Ben Kingsley, Avan Jogia, Nonso Anozie, Alexander Siddig, and Sibylla Deen, Tut premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday and runs for three consecutive nights.
A romantic melodrama inspired by Cecil B. DeMille's outsize productions of yore, Tut is a fantastical (and largely fantasized) dramatization that takes some serious liberties with the truth.
That's true especially when it comes to the portrayal of King Tut himself.
TV's Tut (Twisted star Avan Jogia) is a fearless warrior who rides chariots at high speeds and cuts down scores of enemies with one stroke. He's also a fierce lover who has women ready to murder each other for his attention.
The real King Tut was a delicate, sickly boy suffering from several congenital defects, who eventually fell victim to malaria. He had weak bones; he couldn't stand in a chariot, much less race one.
Yet, what's fascinating about Tut isn't that it modifies the facts, but what those modifications say.
It seems a given that American audiences want our heroes to be men (ahem) of action, fearless fighters. And we want them to have hot, cut bodies and perfect features.
That's nothing new: The Greatest Story Ever Told, from 1965, starred a very Nordic, very beautiful Max von Sydow as Jesus.
It's also no accident that, traditionally, we've portrayed villains as effetes and aesthetes, who discourse about art and literature as they flay their victims.
So even though Jogia's King Tut has a very visible limp (a concession to history), he overcomes his disabilities through years of combat training led by his handsome best friend Ka (Peter Gadiot).
And it's no surprise the story has far less to do with how Egypt was ruled at the time than with a love triangle involving Tut, his sister-and-wife Ankhe, (Deen) and Ka.
Previously, movies and TV shows, including the 1980 James Clavell classic Shogun and Steven Spielberg's WWII epic Band of Brothers, presented the hero not only as beautiful and strong but also as a paragon of moral virtue.
Something has changed. We seem obsessed by stories about morally ambivalent characters who have lost all faith in the reality of values, borderline villains who flout their sin as a badge of honor. That idea has extended to stories from our past as well as our present.
Spike's version of King Tut is an amoral antihero, a proponent of realpolitik who acknowledges no ethical truth outside his own will.
He is not the paragon of good that characterized previous heroes.
When pressed by the high priest (Siddig) to observe the rites and rituals that guarantee him victory, Tut mocks religion and insists his own wisdom is all he needs to succeed.
"There is no guilt," the king says at one point, "no innocence. Only what serves the pharaoh's purpose."
Game of power
Much of Tut is taken up by the intricacies of a tense power struggle between the king, his friend Ka, and the royal adviser (Kingsley).
While they obviously are fighting over control of the empire, their true goal seems to be far more Machiavellian: They seek power for its own sake.
Machiavelli, a Florentine thinker who figures large as a character in both The Borgias on Showtime and in Starz's DaVinci's Demons, has inspired many a despot to argue that, when it comes to governance, the ends always justify the means.
But this isn't a concept relegated to the past and is perhaps due to our fondness for modern antiheroes.
The ends justifying the means is precisely the trap that swallows up Walt in Breaking Bad. He's a man who once believed in the sanctity of the family, the value of science, and the virtues of honest work.
Even when he begins his career as a drug manufacturer, he holds fast to some of those values. He's making drugs, he rationalizes, so he can provide for his family. As the series progresses, he abandons his initial motives and lives only for money, power, and success, ultimately leading to his downfall.
Back in the past, the same is true of the Borgia family in Showtime's wicked-good series. As the pope, Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) is supposed to exemplify Christian virtue. Yet he lies, cheats, kills, fornicates, plots, and deceives to his heart's content.
The Borgias presents a world where the only goal is power - personal, sexual, financial, political. Rodrigo and his son Cesare (François Arnaud) calculate every one of their actions with that goal in mind.
Compare Showtime's The Borgias to the BBC's 1981 miniseries of the same name starring Adolfo Celi as the pope. The Borgia men in that show commit plenty of the same atrocities, but they do so for the good of the church. At least, that's what they claim.
It seems we've come to a point in history when we find such rationalizations wanting.
In the end, we know everyone is just out for himself.
And when it comes to power, all that matters is grabbing it before the other does.
"Fate is not what you are given," King Tut whispers to an adversary while driving a dagger deep into the man's chest. "It is what you take."