Showtime Entertainment // 2012 // 520 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 25th, 2013
The original crime family.
"What? A turd?" -- The pope, after receiving his first cigar
At long last, Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons, The Mission) has achieved his lifelong goal of attaining the papacy. As Pope Alexander VI, he rules over Rome in rather self-serving ways, using a position of great spiritual and political power to further his own secret agenda. He also demonstrates little regard for the sanctity of his position, leading his life in particularly carnal fashion. His sons Cesare (Francois Arnaud, I Killed My Mother) and Juan (David Oakes, Ripper Street) are currently in engaging in a small family feud of sorts, while gentle Lucrezia (Holliday Granger, Jane Eyre) tends to her newborn son.
Meanwhile, the pope's enemies -- including jilted Cardinal Giuliano Della Rover (Colm Feore, Thor) and the increasingly irritable King Charles VII (Michel Muller, Wasabi) -- concoct a host of new schemes in an effort to eliminate the Borgia clan. Will Rodrigo and his family find a way to outsmart their foes?
In my review of The Borgias: Season One, I noted that Neil Jordan's series felt very much like an amalgam of countless other cable television shows. It was certainly a decent season of television, but it felt more like tasty leftovers than a unique new dish. I had hoped that the show might do more to establish its own voice in its sophomore season, but no, it's still exactly the same show it was last time around. That's not a bad thing, mind you: The Borgias is better than a sizable portion of what's on television, but it seems content with being just above-average.
In some ways, The Borgias seems defined by its unwillingness to fully embrace any aspect of its personality. Yes, there's a certain element of soap opera at play most of the time, but it always tries to remain grounded in some measure of historical reality. Yes, it's fueled by startling violence and blush-inducing sex scenes, but it never really becomes as gratuitous with that stuff as Rome or Spartacus. Yes, it's a respectable historical drama that attempts to accurately recapture an intriguing historical era, but it's not above juicing up the facts when a dose of additional drama is required. The result is a well-balanced, consistent show that swings for base hits rather than home runs. It's almost the dictionary definition of a good-but-not-great television drama: the sort of program that deserves to be nominated for Emmys but probably shouldn't win any of them.
Okay, there's one notable change this season: Jeremy Irons has fully embraced the fact that this role offers him a prime opportunity to chew on some scenery. He seems to be having a grand time with the role this time around, whether he's verbally lacerating his opponents, indulging in a ménage a trois with some young companions or plotting to rid Rome of its excessive avian population ("Which is the bigger problem: poverty or pigeons?" he wonders aloud). Irons is an even more magnetic center this time around, and he dominates the proceedings rather than merely blending in with the show's vast cast of characters. Is he a bit too far over the top now and then? Sure, especially in that poorly-scripted speech about family he delivers early in this season's first episode. But for the most part, Irons is a joy to watch as he gleefully sullies the reputation of the Catholic Church.
The supporting cast still isn't quite as richly-developed as I'd like (Cesare and Juan spend too much of their screen time sulking, for starters), but the season generally does a pretty good job of weaving its cast into a single large tapestry rather than sending certain players off on self-contained, unrewarding, time-filling subplots. Jordan is a solid storyteller, and he details the latest chapter in this sordid saga with clarity. As was the case the first time around, the strongest portion of the second season is its final few episodes. It's tempting to see the exceptional final act of the season as a promise that things are about to start getting really good, but most of the signs point to The Borgias remaining the modestly satisfying pleasure that it is. It's not a modern classic, but it's the best thing Showtime is airing this side of Homeland.
I'm slightly disappointed that I didn't get a chance to witness this season in hi-def (the costume and set design remains exceptional), but the DVD transfer is solid enough for those who still consume their entertainment in 480p. Detail is strong, colors are rich and blacks are deep. The Dolby 5.1 surround track is strong, too, though Trevor Morris' score sounds a little flimsier this season (a heavier reliance on synths, perhaps, but it's hard to say for sure). Supplements include some very brief, EPK-style featurettes divided into two categories: "Showtime Original: Interviews and Behind the Scenes" and "World of Borgias." None of it is essential viewing. You also get the first two episode of House of Lies' first season (because hey, lies are just as sexy in the 21st century as they were in the 15th) and the first two episodes of Californication's fifth season (because hey, sex is just as sexy in the 21st Century as it was in the 15th).
"Sometimes goodness needs the help of a little badness," the corrupt pope observes. It's a statement the show itself seems to have taken to heart, sprinkling high-quality acting, production values and historical storytelling with just enough soapiness and pay-cable excess to keep things juicy. It may never quite reach the heights it seems capable of reaching, but I'm still eager to see what Neil Jordan and co. have in store for season three.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 520 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episodes
* Official Site