The Borgias: My Two Cents


Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia / Pope Alexander VI
François Arnaud as Cesare Borgia
Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia
Joanne Whalley as Vannozza dei Cattanei
Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese
David Oakes as Juan Borgia
Sean Harris as Michelotto Corella
Simon McBurney as Johannes Burchart
Aidan Alexander as Gioffre Borgia
Colm Feore as Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II)
Derek Jacobi as Orsino Orsini
Ruta Gedmintas as Ursula Bonadeo (fictional character)
Elyes Gabel as Prince Cem
Montserrat Lombard as Maria
Emmanuelle Chriqui as Sancia
Vernon Dobtcheff as Cardinal Julius Verscucci (fictional character)
Bosco Hogan as Alessandro Piccolomini (later Pope Pius III) (real counterpart: Francesco Piccolomini)
Peter Sullivan as Ascanio Sforza
David Lowe as French Ambassador

The story thus far:  On the eve of the death of Pope Innocent VIII in 1492, a fierce political battle rages inside the Vatican walls over who will become the next pope. The papacy has long been the exclusive domain of a handful of super-powerful and ancient Italian families, so outsider Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia seems like a long shot. But the staid, pious Italians vastly underestimate the ambitions of the wily, rapacious Spaniard. Once ensconced on the throne, Rodrigo uses all of his power and influence to turn the papacy into a dynastic possession for his children, while his rivals plot with all their political might to unseat him.

Rodrigo takes a new mistress, much to the dismay of Vanozza. While Pope Alexander installs his beloved new mistress Giulia in the late Cardinal Orsini’s palace, his enemies are gathering against him. Pope Alexander VI appoints Cesare Cardinal of Valenica, allies with Sforza as Vice-Chancellor of the Curia, and seeks security by creating 13 new cardinals sympathetic to his rule. Della Rovere makes inquiries while Michelletto is firmly embraced by the Borgias as their loyal servant assassin.

My thoughts:  I was without cable for over a week because I was behind on my bill, so I spent the weekend catching up on all the shows that I missed.  Thanks to Time Warner Cable Entertainment on Demand, I discovered that I could watch the 1st 2 episodes of Showtime's new series The Borgias. I've got to be honest here, I absolutely loathed and despised The Tudors with every fibre of my being.  So I didn't have high hopes for The Borgias, until I discovered that the director Neil Jordan and Jeremy Irons were involved. Still, I wasn't going to run out and spend the money to have Showtime added to my already expensive monthly cable bill. But since I could watch the first episodes for free, I thought I would give it a try.

The series started off with a bang. We are informed that it is the year 1492 (hey, I wonder if anything else interesting happened that year?) and it is time for that new reality TV series 'Pick a Pope' starring Rodrigo Borgia. Will Rodrigo be able to bribe enough cardinals to have his dreams come true of being the next Pope? The tension mounts as the votes slowly turn into Rodrigo's favor. Yes! Success has been achieved and Rodrigo Borgia is now Pope Alexander VI. Wasn't that exciting? Weren't you just on the edge of your seat. Not!

I can't really put my finger on what is that made The Borgias so thoroughly unengrossing despite Showtime's pimping out the series as being about the original Mafia family (PSB said the same thing about the Medicis). Perhaps it's because the general audience knows so little about The Borgias compared to say The Tudors which had a built-in recognition factor. Who doesn't know about Henry VIII and his Six Wives? The Borgias not so much. And the series does little too illuminate the mysteries of this family.  So far, all I learned in the first 2 episodes was Rodrigo Borgia really wants to be Pope (Check!), Cesare Borgia doesn't want to be in the church but head of the Papal armies, oh, and he has a thing for his sister Lucrezia, and Lucrezia wants to be painted with a seahorse and wear a really pretty white veil with pearls to her father's popefication ceremony (Check! and Check!). Rodrigo comes across as ambitious but bloodless, Cesare creepy with greasy hair and Lucrezia is just very, very blonde (she kind of looks like a human version of My Little Pony). Oh and they're Spanish, and nobody likes them because they eat paella instead of pasta? I don't know, I'm at a loss here.

The biggest weakness in the series is Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia.  In countless interviews, Irons has mentioned that he thought he was wrong for the role because Borgia was a noted voluptuary who loved to eat, drink and fornicate. He was also a large man, built more like Gerard Depardieu than Irons slim frame.  He plays Borgia more like an ascetic than a man of the flesh. I totally bought his claim in the first episode that he was going to renouce his mistress and try to be a good Pope. What I didn't buy was the scene were Guilia Farnese comes to confession, and we're supposed to believe that he's so overcome by lust for her that he installs in a palace next door with a secret entrance so they can be together. I could see them spending time playing chess but not having sex romps all over the place. He's great at playing Borgia's ambition but little else.  Rodrigo should dominate the series, but in the first two episodes, Irons seems like he's sleepwalking through his scenes. I almost fell over laughing when he told Cesare that killing people was not an option. Oh, really? But briberty is A-OK?

It's a sad commentary when the most vibrant character in the series is Cesare Borgia's monkey as Carlyn over at Raucous Royals so wittily pointed out. (I have it on good authority however that Mr. Monkey was a bit of a diva, wanting his bananas peeled, pooping all over the place, which was why he was fired. But don't weep, he has a new job as the monkey on Upstairs, Downstairs.)

Unfortunately I will not be watching the next few episodes of the series unless I can watch them for free. I will say on the plus side that the costumes and sets are absolutely beautiful, and as far as I can see, unlike The Tudors, period appropriate.

My verdict:  A big dud of a series with characters that have no redeeming qualities. Unless the producers find someway to make us care about what happens to these people, it's just not worth watching.

Other views:

NY Times article and Review
TV Fanfic


Johanna said…
Just watched my first recorded episode last night and was not impressed. Since I changed my cable channel from HBO to Showtime, I will now force myself to watch it.
Unknown said…
I actually enjoy this series, although I'm not expecting a lot of historical accuracy and what little I know of the real Borgias suggests that the show is definitely taking creative license. But I find the show visually stunning, and the music is gorgeous.

I do like how Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander is portrayed as a complex man with redeeming qualities and not just another one-note villain. As a Catholic I'm not proud of the legacy of the Borgia papacy, but Pope Alexander wasn't totally evil. He was a doting father who adored his children, and he opposed the widespread persecution of Jews. I'm so glad that the show mentions both of these things.
I've only watched the first 2 episodes so I'm going to have to take your word that he was a doting father, because I saw nothing of that. In fact, I don't even think Rodrigo had a scene with Lucrezia in the first two episodes, and he treated Cesare more like a servant than a son. All I saw so far was someone who was ambitious and willing to pay for it, but not much else.
Lisa J Yarde said…
I'm enjoying the series so far but have a problem with Cesare being far more interesting than his father. I agree that Jeremy Irons' Rodrigo is the weak link. By the way, he does move past bribery and tame lustfulness, but I agree that the sessence of Pope Alexander isn't coming through. I like that Lucrezia starts out as an innocent but will have a hard time buying it if the season continues this way.
Unknown said…
Hmm, well, he struck me as a doting father in the first episode, which I only watched once so my memory could be wrong. But after that, not so much.
Anonymous said…
I really enjoyed the first three episodes so far. I agree that I expected quite a bit more out of Jeremy Irons but I believe that more of the story can follow around Cesare more, maybe that's why. Holliday Granger is doing a fantastic job as Lucrezia, has she been in anything else? She just has a familiar face. Working for DISH Network I was lucky enough to take home a pretty cool cardboard cutout of this series, the family is sitting just like one of the Soprano's cutouts that I have. You can watch it live on channel 318 with DISH.
Now you're all making me curious to watch the 3rd episode, if I can watch it somewhere for free! I thought Holliday Grainger, looks wise, was perfect for Lucrezia.
Unknown said…
If you have a DirecTV service or something similar, you might be able to get it depending on the package you have. Ours has something called video on demand, which allows you to download certain movies and TV shows to your DVR.
Vic said…
I don't get the Borgias for I don't get Showtime, but I must agree with your assessment of the Tudors, which I found almost unwatchable!
Vic, I struggled through The Tudors on DVD (I took them out of the library) because I wanted to give it a try, but once I got to the final season, I just decided that life was too short. The history was so distorted that I couldn't take it any longer. And the costumes were all over the place.
Unknown said…
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