“Meet the original godfather,” is one of the omnipresent taglines for Showtime’s new, expensive-looking historical melodrama The Borgias. The show, which follows the rise to power of a family of distinctly British-sounding Spaniards in Renaissance Italy whose patriarch is none other than Pope Alexander VI, may indeed remind viewers of the lethality, corruption, and ultimate moral ambivalence of Vito Corleone. As a matter of fact, that family’s strange and violent history was an original inspiration for Mario Puzo’s bestseller, and, before his death, the author had even begun work on a novel about the Borgias themselves. So, in that sense, Showtime’s advertising campaign is right on the money.
Unfortunately for the viewing audience, however, The Borgias shares almost nothing with either the great film saga spawned from Puzo’s novel, or any of the great films and television programs made in its image, including Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Following from the success of Showtime’s last hit series, The Tudors, The Borgias is merely the network’s most recent, shallow exploration into precisely how murderous, horny, and fabulously costumed the wealthy were at the turn of the 16th century.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Beginning in the silent era with Italian extravaganzas like 1914’s Cabiria and the spectacles of Cecil B. DeMille, evolving into existential adventures like Lawrence of Arabia and CGI playgrounds like Titanic, the historical or costume epic held sway over popular film audiences throughout much of the 20th century. Even in the 21st century, when it’s hard to get major funding for any film project that isn’t a comic book movie, a sequel, or both, the historical epic has remained a stalwart, and frequently very compelling, element of the cultural landscape. (A historical epic of one sort or another has been nominated for Best Picture nearly every year since 1980.) But with the rise of the HBO generation of “Quality TV” production, to steal Robert Thomson’s phrase, the historical epic has been given a new and different life, and that rebirth has occurred largely through the miraculous patience and deep pockets of premium cable executives.
The Borgias, so far, has taken advantage of this arrangement in order to build a city’s worth of buxom sets and fill them with attractive Europeans in bright costumes. But the creative freedom and leisurely aesthetic that allowed shows like Rome and Deadwood to transcend chariot races and gunfights seems largely unused here. Watching the first few episodes, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why the show exists at all except to exploit and extend the success of other, higher quality historical dramas.
One possible explanation for the conundrum of The Borgias is that Showtime is currently suffering a drought of legitimized softcore porn. A regrettable subgenre that has emerged from the contemporary premium cable historical epic is what I’ll call the sword-and-sandals/T&A epic. In addition to providing the time and money to develop sophisticated and elaborate drama series, premium cable networks also happen to be in the unique position to enable the broadcasting of large amounts of graphic violence and gratuitous nudity. While a show like Rome was able to marshal its bedroom antics and bloodletting toward a larger depiction of the brutality at the heart of Western civilization, the lesser Tudors, like the actual Tudors themselves, occasionally collapsed under the weight of its gluttonous carnality. So, at this apex moment of the golden age of the historical epic on television, there’s a constant threat that producers will be given epic budgets by HBO or Showtime only to end up producing series that would best be aired after 11:30 p.m. on Cinemax.
The Borgias, while born in part from that impulse, is actually considerably more restrained with its toplessness than these other shows. That said, nary is a torso exposed in this series without a copious amount of erotic whipping visited upon it. Like The Tudors before it, there’s a campy anachronism to the erotic scenarios on The Borgias, a titillating thrill in speculating about precisely what got Pope Alexander VI’s scepter aroused—light BDSM, it turns out, preferably with silk cords. The Borgias, like any historical drama, is partially animated by historical voyeurism.
But The Borgias doesn’t want its audience to think that the show is only about kinky sex or disgusting violence (also whip-related). As its ad campaign suggests, The Borgias wants to be a family crime drama that recalls The Godfather or The Sopranos. In short, it tells the story of Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), an almost comically corrupt Catholic Cardinal (his vow of chastity is so irretrievably broken that nearly half of the featured cast is comprised of actors playing his various grown children) and his bloody, sexy rule over the Vatican. Putting his granite voice to use in a way that should terrify lion cubs everywhere, Irons plays Borgia with a mixture of flamboyance and boredom.
Borgia’s bribery-enabled rise to the papacy is so quick and uneventful—outside of the classically trained protestations of Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore ravenously chewing scenery as rival cardinals—that, by the second episode, Borgia is practically asleep on the throne of St. Peter. This dynamic is interesting in and of itself, but part of what made the aforementioned family crime sagas so compelling was not just the way they portrayed the rise to power, but the way they portrayed the humdrum, procedural maintenance of it. Michael Corleone had to be taught how to shoot a cop and Tony Soprano had to scrap and compromise with his middle management. All these Borgias do is screw and fight, and this leaves scant room for the small details of life at the top that made those works great. Leave the gun, take the cannoli, a wise man once said.
In that vein, a show like The Sopranos succeeded in its critique of power largely through the very ordinariness of its protagonist and supporting characters. Sure, Tony Soprano is a gurgling monster of a murderer and adulterer, but he watches TV just like us, stresses out about his siblings just like us, and is fallible in profoundly ordinary ways, just like us. The sheer preposterousness of almost everything that occurs on The Borgias could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to its longevity. Messages are delivered by carrier doves and in the mouths of suckling pigs; pet monkeys aid the progress of the narrative in improbable, if delightful, ways; and the confessional is used primarily as a place to pick up chicks and order assassinations. The misuse of the confessional on this series is among the most tragic of its errors. The space and ritual of confession—which, on The Sopranos, became Dr. Melfi’s therapy sessions—could serve as a window into the psychology of this particular gurgling monster. Instead, it only ever serves the ends of a narrative more concerned with the gratification of desires than the management and development of complex psychologies.
It’s not impossible, obviously, that Neil Jordan, who created the show and who has written, produced, and directed a fair number of its episodes, is aiming for camp. The analogies to The Godfather, in that sense, would work more as tongue-in-cheek jokes rather than indicating substantive intertexts. The Borgias, in other words, could be read as a trashy mob picture in Renaissance drag. Jordan, of course, who has always shown a deep interest in the contours of lived sexuality, is certainly interested in the fleshier bits of this story. And brewing plotlines surrounding an incestuous relationship between Borgia’s right-hand son, Cesare (Francois Arnaud), and his virginal daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), and a growing rivalry between Lucrezia and Borgia’s latest mistress (Lotte Verbeek) could conceivably be treated with greater nuance and depth than they have been so far. (The women on The Borgias might as well be played by Renaissance portraits carried around by crew members.)
But it’s not Jordan’s intention with this show that is troubling so much as his execution. This show is dripping with prestige, among other things, and it doesn’t seem unfair to say that Jordan wants us to take the show seriously, not as a work of satire or a romp through the sex lives of the popes, but as an examination of the convergence between political and sexual desires. Irons, for instance, is at his best either growling instructions to Cesare about whom he should bribe and with what, or dialing back that growl to comfort and seduce a young woman. These exchanges, and the actors involved (Arnaud and Verbeek), are among the most promising elements of The Borgias. The more incestuous the public and private spheres become, the more potential there is for The Borgias to show us something new about them.
Mad Men, another show about sex, power, and desire, became much more substantial and interesting a few episodes into its first season, once the smoke cleared, the product fetishism slowed to a trot, and its showy aesthetic wore off. The same could happen for The Borgias as it further delves into the unrestrained impulses of the clergy. There’s nothing wrong with desire; The Borgias just needs to decide what it wants.