The Borgias is a pretty great example of lousy timing. It’s a much better series than Showtime’s previous attempt at a sexed-up Wikipedia entry TV show, The Tudors. It’s got a brain in its head, to go along with the boobs and blood, and it has some intriguing ideas running along underneath all the ponderous production values. It’s not a great show, by any means, but it can be involving if you give yourself over to it, particularly in marathon viewing sessions. (I viewed the season in two massive chunks, watching the first four episodes all at once, then the last five all at once, and I’m almost certain I enjoyed it more that way than if I had watched week to week.) The performances are all solid (with a few leaning toward inspired), Neil Jordan’s scripts are both dense and clever, and the direction, if not quite as good as Jordan’s direction of the premiere, is at least serviceable.
But The Borgias had the misfortune to debut a few weeks before Game Of Thrones. And while the two shows have fairly different aims and are in different genres, it’s hard to not sit there and compare the two nonetheless. (The less said about Camelot, Starz’s entry in this “pay cable period piece” sweepstakes, the better.) And virtually everything Borgias does—whether it does it well or poorly—Game Of Thrones just does better. The HBO series has better acting and writing. It has better production values across the board. It has a more involving and propulsive storyline. It has characters whose motivations are compelling and understandable. It has a real sense of stakes, of just what everyone in its cast stands to lose when the shit hits the fan. Ideally, The Borgias would exist in a vacuum, but even when I find it more or less involving, I find myself thinking, “Y’know, Game Of Thrones just does all of this better.”
The strongest scenes in The Borgias are the scenes where the politics and the subtext take over, scenes like the one in last week’s episode where Lucrezia found herself at the front lines of the battle between the papal forces and the French forces and blithely assumed she could figure out a way to keep the bloodshed to a minimum before realizing a.) the papal forces were in no way prepared for what the French had in store and b.) she had no idea what she was doing. Scenes like this, scenes where we watch the characters try to think their way out of a problem, are the best parts of The Borgias, and the best episodes have numerous moments where any member of the gifted cast is given a chance to play around with a scene where we wonder just how much of a talent for bullshitting God has gifted this family with.
Tonight’s highlight comes early before giving way to lots of dull, empty pontificating. King Charles, the king of France, has entered Rome peacefully, but Cardinal della Rovere (a nicely subdued Colm Feore) is already conspiring to bring down the pope. Naturally enough, the pope wants none of this, so he greets the king in the friar’s robes he donned at the end of the last episode, then proceeds to talk his way out of his predicament, essentially making up a solution as he goes along. What he’s counting on is that the king is a good Catholic and will be awed by being in the same room as the “pope of Rome,” who is still the most powerful man on the planet, even if everybody wants him deposed or dead. And as in all of the best scenes of this show, there’s a sense that, yes, Rodrigo Borgia is one of the very best men at talking his way out of sticky situations that has ever lived, but there’s also a sense that all of that stuff he says about how he’s just a conduit for the direct word of God might, in the very slightest bit, be true. And it doesn’t hurt that Rodrigo is played by Jeremy Irons, an actor whose default setting is “cunning.”
At its best, The Borgias embodies this problematic idea: Religious hypocrites are a dime a dozen, but most of them simultaneously really do believe the religion they keep spouting. Jordan and his creative team could have very easily sunk this show into a morass of meaningless sex and violence, designed to show off the tawdry side of the Borgia papacy. And, sure, there’s plenty of that, and it definitely shows us that the church in the days of the Borgias was less a way to promote holiness and more a way for rich and craven men to sate their appetites. But Jordan is always careful to show that even if Rodrigo and his family are all about abusing the power vested in them, they also have a healthy fear of God. Deep down, beneath all of the politicking and power grabbing, the Borgias really do believe in the mystical behind the golden cloth and beautiful churches.
That’s a potent idea to build a series around, but it comes out only haltingly. The series often seems too in love with its own research, and while it’s intriguing to see, say, a Last Supper table made with corpses or a man keeping a rightful heir chained up in a pit and occasionally peeing on him, it also keeps distracting from the main throughline of the series, until the show ends up seeming all over the place. And the series too often seems to grow uncomfortable with its own subtext, until much of the action is taking place on the surface, with Irons sitting back and explaining everything that’s going on to some other character and letting us go along for the ride. To return to the earlier comparison, where Game Of Thrones doesn’t terribly care if it leaves certain viewers by the wayside (which has problems of its own), The Borgias is so terrified anyone will get lost that it keeps backing up and explaining everything over and over again.
Plus, the show just looks cheap, especially when compared to its HBO counterpart. I get that filming on location is expensive, and the costumes are certainly opulent. But any time the series switches over to special effects of any kind—be they a CGI army or the practical effects of having chained cannonballs slice through an army, sending blood and body parts splattering everywhere—they look almost embarrassingly bad. Similarly, the sets too often feel as if the characters are hanging out at the local historical site, not any sort of actual location that would be real to them in their own time. The series has all the trappings of life in long-gone days without feeling like it actually exists there.
And that brings us to the biggest problem with The Borgias: For as often as I found myself getting drawn in, there would be something to come along to push me right back out. For one thing, this is incredibly slow moving, and I can’t really say I found very many of the characters interesting consistently. It was as if the writing would make a character interesting for a scene or two, then shy away from that for a few episodes at a time. (The only character that consistently drew me in was assassin Michelotto. And the series’ plotting was often very odd as well, building up to a giant confrontation that was then slotted into the first 10 minutes of this episode, only to be followed by the least interesting plotline of the season: Lucrezia’s love life (the scenes where she and a stablehand fell into surprisingly chaste lust were the worst of the season). There are a lot of interesting ideas in The Borgias, and I’m sure I’ll watch season two. But there’s also a sense that this show either doesn’t know what it wants to be or someone is so intent on making sure everybody at home can keep up that the show isn’t free to be its best possible self.