By Dave B.
Empire Games (Netflix) is a new historical docuseries that covers six ancient civilizations: Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, the Celts, and the Aztec. Unlike many shows in this genre, Empire Games focuses primarily upon the political intrigue and influential people at certain historical moments instead of on impactful events such as battles and plagues. Therefore, the show often comes off as gossipy and shallow instead of authoritative and complete.
To some extent, Empire Games is compelling viewing. Viewers will learn intriguing new tidbits about famous historical figures. For fans of history, this can be fun, but should be taken with a grain of salt, of course. When taken as a series of biographies with dubious source material, Empire Games largely works. However, there are some significant problems with this show, particularly for viewers who believe that events, circumstances, and general conditions are more relevant to historical outcomes than are individuals, in most cases.
The final three episodes of Empire Games (covering the Chinese, the Celt, and the Aztec civilizations) are much more interesting that the first three. Part of this is because Western viewers are more likely to be fairly well-acquainted with Roman, Greek, and Egyptian history. Since the show’s focus is on individuals rather than events, important historical turning points are glossed over, leaving each of the episodes feeling incomplete despite their approximately 50 minute runtimes. This incompleteness is less noticeable for civilizations with which viewers may be less acquainted or where verifiable historical knowledge is scarce.
As someone who is extremely interested in global history, it’s hard for me to not be overly critical of Empire Games. I applaud Netflix for increasing its offering of historical educational material, but grades are given on execution, not effort, and in this case Netflix drops the ball by appealing to their viewers’ perceived interest in gossip over substance. A historical docuseries that feels superficial can’t be regarded as successful, even if it provides a few pieces of new (and admittedly interesting) personal information about some history’s most powerful people. The silver lining here is that if Netflix comes out with a second season of this series, it’s likely to increase it’s focus on non-Western cultures that don’t currently have their rich histories extensively covered with written documentation. That’s where Empire Games shines and that’s what it should stick to going forward. That said, I do not recommend this show.
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