A still from new Netflix show, Rise of Empires: Ottoman.
What a view
by Stephen McCarty
What a view
by Stephen McCarty

In ‘Rise of Empires: Ottoman’ on Netflix, education meets entertainment

  • The six-part series unites bloody drama with documentary interludes to illuminating effect
  • Plus, a more lighthearted look at the past in Miracle Workers: Dark Ages, starring Steve Buscemi

It remains to be seen whether Netflix’s hefty docudrama undertaking, Rise of Empires, runs for sufficient seasons to embrace the story of 21st century imperial China. But for anyone hankering after the thrills and bloody gut-spills of yesterday’s superpowers, Rise of Empires: Ottoman, is the place to look.

Back when “Ottoman” meant more than just a couch, today’s Turkey was the motherland of an empire that reached from the doorstep of Vienna down to big chunks of the Arabian Peninsula. That expansionism was founded on some grisly battlefield meat cleaving, a sanitised but still ferocious version of which peppers plenty of scenes here.

Perched astride the Bosphorus, one foot in Europe, the other in Asia, Roman Empire capital Constantinople (now Istanbul, of course) achieved its fabled-city fame as the nexus of Christianity and the world’s greatest shopping centre, so the Muslims at the gates understandably had their own plans for it.

Tommaso Basili as Constantine XI.

The 1453 siege of the city followed; and although it certainly wasn’t the first time an army had tried to demolish Constantinople’s mighty walls, this time proved historically momentous – and the repercussions are still rumbling today.

So it’s Mehmed II versus Constantine XI for a place on the all-time greatest rulers’ honours board, with commentary by aristocratic actor Charles Dance at his most sonorous. The illuminating documentary interludes are provided by an international team of scholars, whose insights, sensibly edited for brevity, perfectly tee up the cinematic action. This is one game of thrones with planet-rattling consequences.

Miracle Workers: Dark Ages – a fanciful and funny look at medieval times

But if all that still sounds too weighty – more mooncake than Turkish delight – here’s history as it should be for anyone who detested it at school: bizarre, fanciful and funny.

Miracle Workers: Dark Ages (Warner TV, via Now TV channel 510) earns the ultimate accolade for its quirkily skewed assessment of medieval days, proving Pythonesque in its deadpan and often surreal consideration of how life, then as now, stinks.

Daniel Radcliffe plays the compassionate, fair-minded and hopelessly foppish Prince Chauncley the Pretty Cool, devoted to Henry, his favourite duck (of hundreds) and a lingering disappointment to his war-hero father. Down below the castle battlements, in the dung-strewn streets, is Steve Buscemi, a municipal worker providing, through his family business, an essential service to the townsfolk.

The cast of Miracle Workers: Dark Ages, including Henry the duck.

Buscemi is the naively happy Eddie Shitshoveler, whose name, as decreed by the times, describes his employment. “Life doesn’t get any better than this,” opines the ever-sunny Eddie as he goes about his work, armed with nothing but a small wooden spade. Daughter Alexandra (Geraldine Viswanathan), however, reluctant to follow in her father’s soiled footsteps, wants an education and a more fulfilling, better-smelling job, despite pressure from sneering peers.

Let’s face it: Eddie’s is the ultimate in crap careers, but he cares deeply about his “customers” and even takes the time to attend the big event in town for him and other scatologically inclined folks. Trumpet parp please for the ShitCon convention, where a Steve Jobs-a-like baffles attendees with his plans to revolutionise the industry with his hi-tech invention: the hole.

Having departed radically from the divine subject of the first, the second series of this historical comedy, or comedic history (take your pick, according to which way you swing intellectually), has retained its core cast as well as its clever laughs.

It doesn’t take long to realise those laughs are derived from contemporary absurdities, perhaps the sweetest guffaw coming with the performance of a feeble rap number. At least now we know the alleged art form really is spelt with an initial, silent “c”.