TV Review: THE BORGIAS, 1.1 & 1.2 - "The Poisoned Chalice" & "The Assassin"

US cable TV's latest foray into mischievous historical drama takes aim at the legendary Borgia family of 15th-century Rome; a dynasty of Spanish émigrés who rose to prominence in Renaissance Italy through despicable means, including patriarch Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) succeeding Pope Innocent VIII by buying the necessary votes for St Peter's throne. Famously the inspiration for Mario Puzo's The Godfather novel, it's astonishing this family's tale hasn't been told more often on film/TV, although writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) has tried unsuccessfully to develop a movie for many years. Now he's the hyphenate behind this luxuriant cable drama, afforded the tools to tell the story with greater depth and longevity. The great thing about The Borgias is that it's easy to dive into this world, despite concerns the politics and rituals of Rome circa 1492 would take laborious explanation. As it happens, the story is a cinch to understand as it's so beautifully simple: Rodrigo Borgia manipulates his way into becoming Pope (a position that carried far greater importance and political sway than it does today), to the astonishment and anguish of his peers, who collude to get him deposed. Rodrigo's audaciousness makes for an immediately gripping character, brought to life by the ever-reliable Irons, whose hangdog expressions and throatily mellifluous voice is put to fine use.

At its simplest form, this is the tale of a wicked man who's managed to cheat his way into the papacy as Pope Alexander VI, and intends to keep himself on the gravy train, while ignoring rules like chastity by sleeping with beautiful courtiers who take his fancy -- quickly smuggling a mistress into his bedroom chamber via secret tunnel, behind his wife's (Joanne Whalley) back. Everyone loves to hate a bad guy, and the pleasure of watching Irons fight to keep himself in power, and his family prosperous, can't be underestimated. The fact it's based on truth is the icing on the cake if you're after a salacious story with solid foundations. And personally, I remain enthralled by historical dramas that deal with how people used religion to motivate, control, and brainwash people in more god-fearing times. That was half the reason I stuck with The Pillars Of The Earth, which also featured corrupt men of the cloth using their influence to line their own pockets. The downside to The Borgias is that there's not much sign it's going to be anything but a spicy historical drama with high production values. Putting aside its juicy "Bad Pope" premise and the intrinsic charisma of Irons, there's nothing to get excited about just yet, but hopefully the series can develop over time. It certainly has potential, and I daren't spoil whatever twists and turns await us by visiting the Borgias' Wikipedia page. Filling out the cast we have eldest cleric son Cesare (Francois Arnaud), the Michael Corleone to Rodrigo's "holy godfather", who has a faintly incestuous relationship with his virginal 14-year-old sister Lucrezia (a feisty Holliday Grainger); scene-chewing cardinals conspiring to overthrow Borgia, played by Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore; and a treacherous, rat-faced assassin (Sean Harris), who's so committed to his vocation that he willingly subjects himself to torturous whippings because the wounds will aide a con.

It many ways it's a papal version of The Tudors (complete with English accents, despite the Italian setting), although I'd argue that it's more enthralling to watch a Pope behaving badly because you expect debauched behaviour from kings in the Middle Ages. The notion of a corrupt leader of the Catholic Church has some shock value, even in the 21st-century, it's just that The Borgias will have to quickly establish it has other things to offer audiences once its novelties wear off. Kinky violence, nudity, murder, and heretical scenes (like the confessional being used to woo girls) will only get you so far, before viewers start to wonder why the Borgias are a criminal family it's worth sticking with -- a la The Sopranos. If this series finds ways to shake things up, mainly by refusing to lean on Irons and ensure the supporting characters become just as vital (particularly the underwritten women), it will hopefully prove its worth. Overall, there's enough in The Borgias to keep me around for more, if only because the basis for this story and the involvement of Neil Jordan and Jeremy Irons assures a certain standard will be maintained. Maybe the show will plateau in the weeks to come, but knowing the Borgias are a controversial family whose delinquency has echoed through the centuries, I'm of the opinion there's enough good material to keep its sacrilegious fires burning.
WRITER & DIRECTOR: Neil Jordan CAST: Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Lotte Verbeek, David Oakes, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, Aidan Alexander & Colm Feore. TRANSMISSION: 3 April 2011, Showtime

Dan Owen hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.