Beginning in 1492 as corrupt cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Oscar winner Jeremy Irons) buys his way to the papacy as Pope Alexander VI; the Borgia’s is Showtime’s answer to the BBC’s The Tudors, a lavishly costumed and CGI’d historical drama that plays fast and loose with the facts.
It has all the ingredients; frequent gruesome murders, thudding summarised politics, a thin veneer of religion; plenty of rather tedious sex, but oddly, no swearing.
With the Italian Renaissance it’s heady backdrop and the Papacy in Rome the centre of the Christian world, able to crown and depose kings, the series name-checks all the significant characters and events; the discovery of the New World, da Vinci and his rivals, the coming of modern warfare with gunpowder. Nicolai Machiavelli even pops up as adviser to the Medici’s in Florence. It is a time of hypocrisy, heresy, absolute power and absolute corruption exercised by privileged families like organised crime, favouring those with the money and arms, winner takes all.
Any resemblance to the Godfather and the Sopranos is purely intentional, if only the Borgia’s had a similar degree of engagement with the characters.
Irons is outstanding as the upstart Spanish patriarch, JR Ewing in a cassock, somehow convincing us that he’s a devoted family man whilst ruling his children and his Church with a rod of… iron. And the Borgias has an excellent International cast; alongside Irons are François Arnaud (Cesare Borgia), David Oakes (Juan Borgia), Holliday Grainger (Lucrezia Borgia), Joanne Walley (Vanozza), Sir Derek Jacobi (Cardinal Orsini), Steven Berkoff (Girolamo Savonarola), Colm Feore (Cardinal de la Rovere) and Sean Harris (Casare’s assassin Micheletto).
We watch sweet Lucrezia (Grainger) grow through the series toward the monster we know by historical reputation, but the rest begin and end in the same moral sewer; beside the occasional emotional pause, there is no development in any of them. They are a most unsympathetic bunch, that you follow only for their cunning and foul escapes from the plots of their enemies.
It’s all surface gloss. Not simply amoral, in all these characters there’s a thick vein of 1980’s nihilism, in direct contrast to the time of religious fervour in Catholic Europe. Despite paying lip service to the doctrines of the time, none of them appear to have any genuine fear for their souls, there’s the odd queasy moment, a desire for redemption, then it’s on to the next assassination, sexual conquest, bribe or threat. If there’s any mitigating circumstance, it is that the whole of Medieval Europe was up to the same mucky shenanigans (chalk up first fitting use of that phrase in these pages!).
Despite this, Season 1 was nominated for six Emmy Awards and the second season is in production.
The best episodes top and tail the season, written by creator, executive producer and Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With The Vampire at his best; High Spirits at his worst), on form with a high-production values TV project.
It’s more more convincing than The Tudors, more entertaining than the dreary misery of Game of Thrones and less camp than Aussie CGI Pantomime Spartacus. Season Two could be one to watch. RC