Watching Lionsgate’s Borgia: Faith And Fear and Showtime’s The Borgias is the perfect example of how two very different creative people can get different results from the same material, even as that material naturally forces them to dovetail in certain ways. It’s easy to see why the story of Rodrigo Borgia would entice the sorts of people who make adult-themed cable dramas. It’s packed with sex, violence, political intrigue, and men in positions of power behaving badly. But where director Neil Jordan took his Showtime series to places informed by the conflict between religion and carnal desires, Tom Fontana, veteran of St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life On The Street, and Oz, takes the Lionsgate series—which was an international co-production between France and Germany that debuted in Europe and aired first in the U.S. on Netflix—to places far more earthy and grounded.
The two series cover roughly the same period of time: Rodrigo Borgia’s ascension to the position of Pope and the immediate and chaotic aftermath surrounding his election. Where The Borgias focuses on—and makes great use of—the idea of hypocrisy within religion, however, Fontana seems more interested in the human interactions behind the politics of the Renaissance church. Jordan was fascinated by the ghoulishness of the period, by its obsessions with ritual and death; Borgia features much more in the way of nudity and violence and people getting chamberpots of shit thrown in their faces.
Borgia originally aired in two-hour blocs in Europe, and that shows in the way that Fontana and his writers structure the series, so it resembles nothing less than six two-hour movies, each telling distinct stories in the life of one man. (In this sense, its closest ancestor might be the miniseries of the ’70s and ’80s.) The same director heads both episodes, and often, the scripts are credited to the same writer or writing team as well. This gives every two-hour chunk a nicely cohesive feel that’s like few other dramas today. It’s a show with “episodes”; they’re just longer than the usual episodes.
The series’ finest hours are the ones in which Fontana gets into the politics of becoming the Pope. Though American John Doman (best known as Lt. Rawls from The Wire) seems an odd choice for the role of Rodrigo for most of the first two episodes, he eventually settles into the role. When Rodrigo gets what he wants and ascends to Pope, Doman’s shout of triumph is at once thrilling and chilling. Here’s a man who’s realized his life’s calling but celebrates it with a bark devoid of anything like humility. He’s good at the politics of the job, not so great at the religious aspects.
But this is one of Fontana’s main points. He’s always fascinated by the office politics of various workplaces, and here, he simply applies that to the ancient Catholic Church. These fascinations, however, leave him less interested in the story’s more soapy trappings, like the bits about Rodrigo’s lovers and his illegitimate children, material in which Jordan found much to relish. (For one thing, The Borgias was much more upfront about the children’s parentage, where Borgia briefly treats such issues as a somewhat soap opera-esque mystery.) These bits often feel tossed in, as if Fontana realizes they need to be there but wants to get them over with as quickly as possible.
Borgia, like the other Borgia series, is far from great TV, what with its many meandering subplots and its inability to make anyone in the cast who’s not Doman exciting and interesting. Yet when Doman commands the screen and the often-thrilling direction lets the story move forward at a propulsive clip, Borgia is a fascinating look at the place where religion and politics intertwine, where faith in God mingles uncomfortably with faith in a fallen man.
Key features: A making-of documentary.