Judge Josh Rode failed in his bid to become Pope. Turns out you need to be Catholic. Who knew?
Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia.
Early in 2011, Showtime and Netflix negotiated a new deal, part of which stipulated the cable station would no longer make episodes of its first-run original series available on Netflix. "With all the options out there, we want to be sure people know they have to subscribe to see Dexter and The Borgias," explained Showtime CEO Matt Blank. So Netflix revised an old adage and decided if they couldn't join 'em, they'd compete with 'em. They acquired the North American rights to Borgia, a European production being produced simultaneously about the same period papal drama.
Facts of the Case
Pope Innocent VIII is on his death bed, and all the Cardinals of Rome are doing their scheming best to put themselves in line for the right to sit on the Chair of Saint Peter. The chief schemer is Rodrigo Borgia (John Doman, The Wire), a man who will stop at nothing to become Pope. This includes using his children as pawns and making promises he may or may not choose to keep.
His children have troubles of their own. Cesare (Mark Ryder, Robin Hood) is supposed to be studying to become a priest, but doesn't really want to; a conflict driving him to greater and greater acts of contrition. Daughter Lucrezia (Isolda Dychauk, Faust) wants nothing more than to marry—as long as it's an acceptable suitor—until fevered delusions convince her to become a nun. Juan (Stanley Weber, Lily Sometimes) seems to have everything, including a Dukedom, but can't seem to control his lust for more.
As Rodrigo's dreams are realized and he's appointed Pope, his opponents stir up the kings of Europe, leading to war and strife, making Rodrigo's job much harder than he ever anticipated.
Netflix didn't lose much when it picked up Borgia as a replacement for The Borgias. The European version has sumptuous sets, excellent production values, and just as much violence, nudity, and sex as your average Showtime series. The writing starts a bit shaky, with a number of expository conversations that don't sound quite natural, but strengthens as the series progresses and the writers figure the audience has caught up.
The problem with Borgia is that none of the main characters are particularly likable. In the Showtime version, Rodrigo does terrible things, but at least he feels bad about them. He believes in God and worries about the consequences of his actions. Doman's Rodrigo shows no such tendency. He is amoral, self-centered, and ruthless to the core. The only piety he displays is the false front he shows the unwashed masses.
Cesare is worse. He does believe in God and his ever-accelerating methods of dealing with the guilt of his actions quickly spills over into insanity. He begins as a moderately sympathetic figure, but loses it by the third episode. Lucrezia starts off as whiny, but that doesn't change much. The most compelling of the Borgia clan may be Juan, the lusty warrior. Weber seems to have charisma to spare, but doesn't get a chance to use it. Instead of a rounded role, Juan's main attribute—pride—is ratcheted up to an epic hubris that becomes his single defining trait.
Then there are the villains. Well, that's not the right word, since nearly everyone in this show is a villain. The Borgias' enemies are no more likable than their protagonist counterparts. Many of Rodrigo's opponents dislike him simply because the Borgia family originally hailed from Spain. The Spanish king agrees to help Rodrigo against King Charles of France, on the condition that Rodrigo excise all of the Jews from Rome. While all of this racism and careless violence may be a reasonably accurate portrayal of the times, it does not lend itself to the most enjoyable of viewing experiences.
Despite the touchy subject matter, the acting is quite excellent. Doman may play on the same level as Jeremy Irons, but his gravelly voice gives Rodrigo an instant authority with enough presence to keep the viewer's attention engaged. Ryder's soulful eyes are almost characters in their own right, constantly on the edge of tears, playing a perfect counterpoint to Cesare's increasingly vicious actions. Dejan Cukic (Wallander) stands out as an intense Guiliano Della Rovere, Rodrigo's main opponent for that Papacy.
Presented in standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is sharp and clean, with only minimal grain in darker scenes. Colors are deep and rich, though the blacks aren't quite pure. The 5.1 Dolby Surround is front-heavy but moderately immersive; subwoofer not used its potential. Extras include an interesting "making=of featurette" that contains my favorite thing from the show: close-ups of the main cast, slowly panning out before moving on. I don't know why, but the visual struck a chord with me.
Borgia: Season One is an extraordinary show about equally extraordinary people; beautiful, exciting, and well-acted. If you like gritty, realistic shows with lots of sex and violence—and don't require a character to root for—this one's for you. If, on the other hand, you need to like the protagonists to enjoy the show, look elsewhere. Everyone here is a complete ass.
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