The Borgias

The Borgias debuts tonight on Showtime at 9 p.m. Eastern with a two-hour premiere. It will air at 10 p.m. Eastern in the weeks to come.

The Borgias isn’t a great series, nor is it necessarily even a good one all that often. But it has moments of greatness in it, and it gains in power as it goes along. It can be confoundingly bland and boring, leaving you wishing it would just embrace the trashier side of its personality, but it’s also capable of scenes filled with stark, startling beauty or a raw, dark humor. And it’s got an admirable trust in the audience most of the time, counting on those watching it to keep up and figure out much of what’s going on for themselves, even as it’s asking viewers to keep track of over a dozen historical figures drifting around the edges of the Vatican in the late 15th century. That’s rare, especially in the subgenre the series belongs to.

The Borgias belongs to a group of series that might as well be called “Wikipedia historical fiction.” These series aim to take real people and events, portray the broad strokes, then pile on as much debauchery as possible, the better to keep modern viewers watching. The best example of the subgenre was HBO’s Rome, a series that had actual, compelling fictional characters to go along with the Julius Caesars and Marc Antonys of the world. That series aimed for nothing less than to portray the grand sweep of the Roman Empire, from top to bottom, and while its ambitions sometimes exceeded its grasp, it was a show that was always at least thoughtful, even as it condensed the “historical” part of “historical fiction” so thoroughly that the events of seven years sometimes seemed to take place over the course of a long afternoon. 

But the most successful—in terms of seasons run—Wiki-series was The Tudors, Showtime’s four-season long sprint through a much, much tawdrier version of the reign of Henry VIII. The Tudors had its moments—particularly early in the run—but it was mostly trash that didn’t realize it was as bad as it was and had, instead, delusions of grandeur. The series’ historical inaccuracies were rife—one of the foremost tenets of the Wikipedia historical fiction series is that when you go to the site to check the page for the actual events you just saw depicted, they don’t differ so wildly as to make you wonder what the hell the writers were thinking—the portrayal of Henry VIII as some sort of sexy love machine was often bizarre, and the show often seemed afraid of letting viewers settle in or figure things out for themselves. It was brash and over-obvious, an attempt to make history “sexy,” and it never really worked.

That’s why The Borgias has been met with so much advance grumbling in so many quarters. The show shares a network—Showtime—and a producer—Michael Hirst (who’s also working on Starz’s Camelot)—and the promotions have made it seem as though the show shares a sensibility as well, pulling absolutely every bloody or nudity-laden moment from the first handful of episodes and smashing them together into commercials that make it seem as if the show took the already sex- and violence-drenched story of the real-life Borgias and turned it into a non-stop orgy in a tank full of blood. What the hell could esteemed actor Jeremy Irons be doing in THIS?

But from the first, The Borgias marks itself as something different from Hirst’s usual malarkey. Hirst took a backseat on this production to Neil Jordan, the director responsible for such films as The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, Interview With The Vampire, and The End Of The Affair (among many, many others). Jordan’s been trying to get a film about the Borgias together for what feels like decades now, and he’s finally got the chance to revel in this story, one which dovetails nicely with his interests in hypocrisy, the hidden desires of the human heart, and Catholicism. Perhaps attracted by the chance to work with Jordan, The Borgias boasts a cast filled with seasoned vets—Irons, Colm Feore, Joanne Whalley—and talented up-and-comers—Francois Arnaud, Holliday Grainger. And while not everything works, enough of it does to suggest that Jordan (who wrote every episode and directs the first two) is rapidly learning the ropes of the American TV game.

The central figure of The Borgias is Rodrigo Borgia, a man who steals the papacy via bribes in tonight’s pilot episode (the weakest of the four I’ve seen), leading him to become Pope Alexander VI. Irons’ performance as Alexander veers between moments of mordant humor and dark amusement and moments where it seems like the actor just really wants a nap. As Rodrigo is stealing away one of the most powerful seats in the world, Jordan fills in the characters around him, revealing a world where men of the cloth were expected to be celibate but were also expected to have mistresses—just not ones they carried on with in public. As Rodrigo’s longtime mistress and mother of his four children, Vanozza, Whalley is terrific, finding just the right notes to play as a woman who finds herself spurned first for an office (which she can handle) and then for another woman entirely. As two of Rodrigo’s children, Arnaud (as the dark-hearted Cesare) and Grainger (playing slightly younger than she’s able to as 14-year-old Lucrezia) acquit themselves well AND find a nicely creepy sexual chemistry between their characters.

The Borgias does, indeed, have problems. Every episode is filled with many, many dull stretches, where nothing much happens and the characters wander around and pontificate like the characters in dull costume dramas have for ages (this problem is at its worst in tonight’s two episodes), and every episode also has a moment or two where a character lays out just what’s happened so far, in case you haven’t been following along at home, something which feels like an unnecessary network note. Furthermore, there’s always the sense that a series that features a wedding that rapidly descends into something like a drunken orgy (in episode four) shouldn’t be quite this… clean. It’s not that The Borgias lacks for sex and violence, but it all feels eminently tasteful, when you might want the show to get down in the muck and see what happens. There are also bad performances here and there, like a guest character in next week’s third episode (the strongest I’ve seen so far, despite this wince-inducing actor) who’s played with a ridiculous accent that sounds like a voice Crow from Mystery Science Theater 3000 would use to mock a British person in a bad movie. (And this is to say nothing of all of the groaning references to historical figures you’ll recognize at home, like Machiavelli or Leonardo da Vinci or Columbus, all of which are worked in in hilariously inorganic fashion.)

But every time the series threatens to turn too dull or to sink completely into the mire of people talking in stultifying tones, Jordan and his cast and crew find a way to tip their hat to the audience, to acknowledge that this is a story told by smart people for viewers who are willing to pay a little attention and let a story unfold. Look at how the series’ directors, for instance, film so many scenes as though the characters are in a confessional, even when they’re not. Or look at the way Jordan and his actors turn what could be stock characters—like an amoral assassin driven by a blackness at his core (played enormously well by Sean Harris)—into breathing figures of the time. Or look at the way Jordan is willing to play with modern attitudes and his characters’ amoralities, as in the third episode, where the Borgias open their home to a Turkish prince (a Muslim), angering the other cardinals of the church, though the family’s motives with the prince are… less than pure. Or look at how the series turns the heady business of 15th century European politics into something modern and cutthroat and fascinating, like a TV dramatization of a particularly great game of Europa Universalis. The Borgias could have made stood a little more spice, but it pulls off something that’s no small feat: It makes a long-ago time feel slightly less covered in cobwebs.