Talk about niche programming. When the successful Showtime series "The Tudors" came to a conclusion last year (after all, Henry VIII could only have so many lives and wives), the network didn't miss a beat in creating a program that would appeal to a similar demographic. "The Borgias" tackles an equally well known historical personage and gives the notorious Pope and his clan a sumptuous dramatization. Helmed by Neil Jordan, a writer/director whose "The Crying Game" won him a screenplay Oscar, the show further stacked the deck with the brilliant casting coup of Jeremy Irons in the lead role. The show highlights the entire family, not just patriarch Rodrigo Borgia, and showcases the seamy underbelly of corruption, manipulation, and brutality that have made the name synonymous with criminal enterprise. In fact, the family's reputation for ruthlessness inspired Mario Puzo's to mold the characters featured in "The Godfather" after the real life Borgias. |
With the first season of the show only running nine episodes, however, the full scope of the Borgia legacy is merely introduced. The premiere starts with the death of the reigning Pope, which leaves a vacancy that ambitious Cardinal Rodrigo (Irons) intends to claim at any price. Through back room deals and other nefarious deeds, Rodrigo ascends to power while making an enemy of Cardinal Della Rovere (a solid Colm Feore)--an act that will have long range repercussions as the exiled Cardinal aligns with outside forces to unseat the Pope. Appointing son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) as a Cardinal, son Juan (David Oakes) to military leadership, and arranging an advantageous marriage for daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger)--the Pope is establishing a well protected position. Each child plays their part to precision as they deal with personal drama, romance, and intrigue. The show progresses with the Pope's position becoming more precarious as the French Army marches through Italy with its sights on Rome. This is a primary story arc as the season reaches its conclusion.
In every regard, "The Borgias" is a terrific technical production. The sets, costumes, and period details all look great. The action sequences, especially when it comes to the battlefield, are tense and brutal--with superb effects. The screenplays are smart--allowing a slow build tension and actual character development that heightens the impending drama. It's great to have Irons back in a prominent leading role as he seems to have been wallowing in cheesy supporting turns for quite some time. Arnaud has a quiet intensity as, perhaps, the show's most intriguing and complex character. And Grainger has a subtlety that gets under your skin--before you know what happened, she has transformed into a sly power player. But the cast is uniformly excellent with even smaller roles well delineated.
I commonly look to cable and premium cable networks to provide more surprising and sophisticated entertainment, and Showtime has done an excellent job structuring a program for adult viewers. With these historical dramas, there will always be a contingent of people who will chime in on details of precise historical accuracy. I make no claims that this show is one hundred percent accurate, but it is certainly an effective and entertaining dramatization. If you enjoy lush period pieces, there is a lot to admire in "The Borgias" and that makes it an easy recommendation. KGHarris, 5/11