Suppose you run a major pay-cable network. Many of your subscribers pay to watch a medieval costume drama, which features violence, dastardly plots and lurid sexual imagery. Then, all of a sudden, it ends. What do you do?
Sundays at 10 p.m.
If you think like Showtime does, you’ll give your subscribers what they want and reload with another medieval costume drama, nominally based on real life historical figures. So less than a year after the series finale of “The Tudors,” Showtime is bringing its customers back to the blood-soaked, deceitful Renaissance era with the premiere of “The Borgias.”
While “The Tudors” focused on England, “The Borgias” shifts to Rome, plunged into chaos following the death of Pope Innocence VIII. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons, “Reversal of Fortune”) exploits the confusion, snatching the papacy through a series of spectacular backroom deals and to become Pope Alexander VII. Through strategic nepotism, he hopes to cement the Borgia legacy for an eternity. But his children can only take him so far. His eldest son Cesare (François Arnaud, “I Killed My Mother”) is a disillusioned idealist. His younger son Juan (David Oakes, “The Pillars of the Earth”) is a headstrong, whorehouse-frequenting brat. And his daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger, “Jane Eyre”) is a woefully immature child. With his opponents, most notably Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere (Colm Feore, “24”), desperate to eliminate him while his regime is still young, Alexander must act quickly to evade assassination.
None of this intrigue is new — “The Tudors” thrived on it — and cynics will be quick to jump on the series as a blatant cash grab by network suits. But for some reason, what we saw (and enjoyed, in spite of ourselves) in England is far more effective in Rome. This stems partially from the cast. Irons sinks his teeth deep into the role of the Borgia patriarch, alternating between the haughty air of the elite and the determined, accept-no-mistakes attitude of a true schemer. Feore’s performance as Alexander’s nemesis and Arnaud’s performance as the tortured son are passive but similarly excellent. Feore plays his role with quiet pragmatism, smiling to Alexander’s face while whispering conspiracies behind his back. Arnaud’s performance is delightfully layered, hinting at a tortured soul with plenty of room to develop as the series continues.
The choices of family and setting also help. The Borgias of historical lore are more famously controversial than the Tudors, carrying, by default, connotations of corruption and sleaze, while the hallowed, secretive nature of the church lends itself to the era’s myriad political webs. The plans that seemed overblown in England seem perfectly normal discussed from the confines of a confessional booth. The lengthy sex scenes that seemed gratuitous in “The Tudors” are simply Alexander and his sons living up to their name in “The Borgias.”
But despite this advantage, Oscar-winning series creator and executive producer Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”), directs the pilot with a measured, deliberate style. Good pilots must tread the line between story development and action, and Jordan does so excellently, giving viewers enough blood and lechery to stay hooked while leaving mystery in the air — mystery that demands a return trip to the Vatican. And if the pilot is any indication, the first season’s remaining seven episodes will be trips well worth making.