The Borgias

The Borgias

Starring: Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Colm Feore
(Sundays @ 9 on Showtime)

The advertisements for Showtime’s new historical Drama The Borgias describe the titular group as “The Original Crime Family.” That sounds promising, especially when added to their reputation of being accused of adultery, theft, incest, rape and murder. Now we’re talking!  I mean, as fellow PTA members, maybe not so much, but as a subject for a TV drama, on Showtime no less (with their liberal views on boobies).....?  

Let’s do this thing!

In case you weren’t aware, the Borgias were an actual family back during the Italian Renaissance. They were accused of (and quite probably guilty of) everything written above.  They were also prominent members of the Church, including Cardinals and even Pope, which is what adds even extra flavor.  As the show begins the Pope is dying, which triggers a Conclave (to elect a new Pope).  Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) is determined to ascend from Vice-Chancellor to Pope, and has his illegitimate son Cesare buy off the Cardinals he needs.  

(This process is known as Simony, and was apparently a pretty big deal at the time, although compared to everything else the family is accused of seems almost laughable today.  It’s also worth pointing out that the very same Cardinals who are bought off are later outraged by the whole thing, shades of “shocked to find gambling in this establishment!”  One suspects that Renaissance Church is going to take quite a beating for its hypocrisy and a history book: they earned it.)

I mentioned Jeremy Irons is the main character, and he’s reliably great, although a small part of me wished to see someone unfamiliar in the role. It’s not that Irons can’t delivery the complex performance of a power-hungry man who nonetheless is capable of feeling a divine spirit with God, it’s just that I’ve seen Irons give complex “bad guys who are still very human” performances many times, so there is some feel of deja-vu.  

More interesting (to me) is the role of Cesare, played by François Arnaud.  He’s the most dynamic character in the first two episodes (which serve as the Pilot - there are seven additional episodes planned for Season 1), a man who wishes nothing more than to be a soldier and protect his family, but forced to watch his younger brother fill that role while he is a Cardinal.  Many Cardinals of that time were (by our standards) gross hypocrites, but Cesare feels the yoke particularly harshly.  He doesn’t want to be in the Church, and only does so to please his father.

I’ve mentioned hypocrisy twice, but in reality it’s a little more complex than that. This review isn’t the proper place to go into it, but in short: at the time the Church was greatest avenue for a family to acquire and gain wealth and power, much like Politics or Business today, so noble families would have at least one son enter the priesthood.  Current scandals about priests aside, no one thinks of becoming a priest today as a way to get rich, but that was definitely par for the course then.

At the same time, the Church came up with the brilliant idea of not letting priests marry, not for service to God, but because as unmarried men they would have no legitimate heirs and so at death all their titles and lands would revert to the Church. Sort of a symbiosis of corruption, if you will.  Yet these men were still, you know men, and many routinely had mistresses and children, etc.  Rodrigo Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI) was not atypical of the period, but he does symbolize the worst of it.

One of the reasons is because he was the first Pope to have a mistress - or at least be known somewhat openly to have one.  That would be Giulia Farnese (played in The Borgias by Lotte Verbeek), and Rodrigo Borgia had her installed in a castle next to the Vatican complete with underground passageway so they could visit each other for “spiritual comfort” in the night.

(I’m not making up the “spiritual comfort” line.  When Rodrigo’s mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei (played by “still bringing the heat at forty-six” Joanne Whalley) finds out about Giula Farnese, Vannozza storms the Vatican screaming at the Pope about “his new whore” and he tries to explain that he had no choice - the woman needed spiritual comfort!  Any dudes out there - let me know if that works.)

Of all the women surrounding the Borgias, however, the one history is most fascinated with is daughter Lucrezia (played in the Showtime series by the impossibly-named Holliday Grainger), one of the most infamous names of all time.  Maybe it was because she was suspected of plotting to kill a few husbands. Maybe it was her “close” relationship to brother Cesare, or maybe it was just her general awesomeness.  Here’s a small excerpt from her Wikipedia article:

She is described as having heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes which constantly changed colour, a full, high bosom, and a natural grace which made her appear to "walk on air"; these were the physical attributes that were highly appreciated in Italy during that period. Another description said that "her mouth is rather large, the teeth brilliantly white, her neck is slender and fair, and the bust is admirably proportioned."

(Leave it to the Italians to “highly appreciate” those wacky features, eh?  Flashing eyes, long hair, large sweet mouth, moved well and had a nice rack.  Way to go out on a limb, guys!)

The other supporting roles that make up the rest of the cast are excellent, as one would expect, populated with your venerable character actors from stage and screen, such as Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore.  One guy I did want to specifically point out, though, was 
Sean Harris as Michelotto Corella, the Borgia’s private assassin.  The dude is mesmerizing to watch, and I couldn’t take my eyes from him when he was on screen.  

The Borgias was created (and apparently completely written) by Neil Jordan, one of the most underrated directors of the last 20 years. You probably know him from THE CRYING GAME and INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, but he also helmed great work like THE BUTCHER BOY, IN DREAMS and THE GOOD THIEF.  

Knowing Jordan was involved raised my expectations greatly, and there was a sweeping grandeur in the opening, giving us a sense of how immense the Pope (and the Church) were in those times.  Yet - and forgive me for going all horny teenager on you here - this is Showtime!  Where was all the sex and nudity?  I counted maybe 3 naked women, maybe 5 boobies and a couple of cheeks. (There wasn’t much beefy flavor, either. I play fair, Ladies: what’s good to get goosed is also good to get gandered, or however that goes.)

The first episode of The Tudors has more naked women than you could shake a....well, you get my point.  They front-loaded the nudity there egregiously (no other episode had that much sex) in order to get people to watch. And Hyperion supported that plan. Maybe this is Pop-Chair psychology (pop pscyhology + armchair psychology) but I felt like Neil Jordan held back on the venal sinning of the time period a bit in part because he was trying to make a weighty drama, you know, full of literary worth and all that.  Hey, I’m all for that, but how can you truly represent the Renaissance Church without whores and full-fontal nudity, and lots of it?

Well anyway, hopefully they step that up.  Overall The Borgias got off to a good - if not spectacular - start.  They have a great cast, they’re in capable hands, and if they will unleash the hounds, so the speak, the material will take care of itself.

(There are repeated encore airings all week or you can catch up On-Demand. Regular episodes are on Sunday at 9.)

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