Showtime Entertainment // 2011 // 467 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 21st, 2011
The original crime family.
"In times like these, it's good to have old friends."
The year: 1492. The place: Rome. As our story begins, we're introduced to the crafty Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers), a religious leader with a reputation for less-than-ethical behavior. Rodrigo has four illegitimate children by his former lover Vanozza Cattaneo (Joanne Whalley, The Man Who Knew Too Little): the grim Cesare (Francois Arnaud, I Killed My Mother), the playboy Juan (David Oakes, The Pillars of the Earth), the delicate Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger, Jane Eyre), and the innocent young Gioffre (Aiden Alexander). After much plotting and scheming, Rodrigo lands himself an honor which horrifies many of those who know him well: he is selected as the new pope. Rodrigo is eager to use the position for personal gain, but quickly finds himself facing a series of large-scale challenges which might bring his reign to a swift end.
To a large degree, The Borgias feels like a carefully-constructed melange of many successful television programs from the past decade. In its sex-and-violence-saturated examination of notable historical figures, it reminds us of The Tudors, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Camelot, and Rome. In its examination of a tenuous, complicated father/son relationship, it reminds us of Sons of Anarchy. Some of the romantic relationships and the show's emphasis on characters engaged in crafty games of plotting and scheming remind us quite distinctly of Game of Thrones. The manner in which the complexity of Vatican's shifting political structure is highlighted sometimes causes the show to play like a historical version of The Wire. The title and the show's tagline (reprinted above) seem designed to remind us of The Sopranos. As such, it's bound to feel like you've seen a lot of this stuff before.
However, the fact that The Borgias is inspired by a number of other programs doesn't automatically make it inferior to all of them. It's by no means a masterpiece on the level of The Sopranos or The Wire -- at least not yet -- oh, who am I kidding, it'll never be that good -- but it's engaging television which offers enough compelling original material to merit a recommendation. Though the show's advertising campaign seemed to promise this would be another super-sexy historical melodrama, The Borgias is actually a good deal less gratuitous than many of its inspirations (despite the fact that its central character is arguably best-known for his involvement in a bizarre orgy known as The Banquet of Chestnuts). Sure, there's a steady supply of sex and violence, but it generally feels much less forced and needlessly explicit than what many pay cable programs serve up. In the hands of creator and writer Neil Jordan, the series never allows ratings-grabbing sensationalism to overwhelm its ideas.
The best concept The Borgias offers is the idea that the endlessly corrupt Rodrigo Borgia actually is a man of faith. Sure, he's eager to exploit the Papacy for personal gain and has no qualms about doing questionable things in the name of God, but he's not just using religion as a useful cover for his behavior. He truly does believe that God is watching him, and as such must find a way to justify all of his actions in a manner which conforms with his warped belief system. The series offers some tremendously effective moments in which Rodrigo nervously reminds himself of the fact that he's going to have to account for every one of his wicked actions. When Rodrigo prays, he pours his soul out in earnest. We've seen so many things about religious hypocrites, but few in which religion is as meaningful and real as it is to these characters. Jordan's a smart writer (he pens every episode of the series in addition to directing the first two), and his storytelling is consistently meaty and nuanced.
The other key reason to check out The Borgias is the performance of Jeremy Irons in the lead role. Though Irons is marginalized from time to time and seems a little disinterested during the first few episodes, he's magnificent once he sinks his teeth into the role. Irons is particularly effective during the final few episodes, in which both his faith and his morals are pushed to the limit. It's remarkable to observe the way in which Irons can shift from arrogant confidence to broken contrition to sneering vengeance without missing a beat. He's also an actor who knows how to do a lot with very little, and gets a lot of mileage out of dryly amusing scenes in which he expresses so much with a little wince or a raised eyebrow (as the pope is often prevented from expressing himself in the way that an ordinary person might). A handful of supporting players impress (particularly fretful guest star Derek Jacobi, a quietly nervous Colm Feore as the show's central antagonist, and a very entertaining Michael Muller as King Charles VIII of France), but Irons owns this series.
The Borgias: Season One (Blu-ray) offers a handsome 1.78:1/1080p high definition transfer which highlights the show's impressive sets and costume design. Though it's clearly on a smaller budget than something like Game of Thrones, The Borgias is a good-looking show which only suffers during some large-scale special effects shots (a few moments during the battles which occur in the final three episodes are slightly cringe-inducing). Detail is strong throughout, colors are vibrant (thankfully, this is one historical show which doesn't look dingy and desaturated) and flesh tones are warm and accurate. Blacks are satisfyingly deep as well, though there are minor crush issues on occasion. The TrueHD 5.1 audio gets the job done nicely, with an effectively heated score from Trevor Morris getting a particularly generous mix. Dialogue is never less than stellar, and a handful of action packed sequences are effectively boisterous. Extras are entirely comprised of random episodes of other Showtime series: the House of Lies pilot, the first episode of Dexter's sixth season and two episodes of Episodes. You also have the option to access a handful of additional random episodes via BD-Live. Honestly, I could care less about this stuff; some series-specific extras would have been much more useful.
The Borgias may not succumb to sensationalism as often as you might suspect, but it does succumb to dreariness every now and then. The middle stretch of this nine-episode first season can drag a little at times, mostly because these episodes largely push Irons to the sidelines and focus on poorly-developed romances between many of the supporting characters. Honestly, Rodrigo's kids really aren't that interesting at this point (though Lucrezia has her moments), as the relatively inexperienced actors portraying them just don't have the screen presence of the seasoned pros in the cast. Cesare has about as much screen time as anyone else in the show, but by the season's conclusion actor Francois Arnaud hadn't convinced me that the character was anything more than a mopy bore. Here's hoping these characters (and the actors playing them) get a chance to grow next season.
It's an imperfect show, but I enjoyed The Borgias: Season One (particularly the final third of the season) and look forward to seeing where it goes from here. Props to Neil Jordan and co. for turning in a surprisingly classy program.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 467 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episodes
* Official Site