DF Summer TV Catch-Up / Loathing The Borgias

The Borgias (I)

The Borgias: Jeremy Irons, Holliday Grainger, Francois Arnaud

Summer is TV catch-up time at our house, and how low we’ll go in choosing shows is a measure of how hopelessly in need of a fix we feel.

This year, there’s some good news in the form of a couple of summer series. The Divide is worthy and interesting (two elements that don’t always go together), with compelling acting by Marin Ireland, Adam Rothenberg, the wonderful Jan Maxwell and more. On the other hand, Satisfaction looks silly and implausible but also like a potential guilty pleasure. (More on these when and if we stick with them.)

Still, it wasn’t enough. So, in a nearly off-the-charts surge of desperation, Simon and I returned to The Borgias.

Please understand that I disliked it from the start. But Simon was keen on it, and we persevered – for a while. I gave up several times along the way, finding it both ludicrously over-the-top and difficult to follow, and I made no attempt to cover up my annoyance. The exchange below is typical of our conversations:

        Me: (looking at the screen) That snarling guy in the black skull-cap – who’s that?

        Simon: It’s Machiavelli.

        Me: Oh. Really? Have we seen him on the show before?

        Simon: Many times.

In any case, to humor Simon – and because we couldn’t find anything else – I gave it another try.

And I disliked it more – really, I loathed it. Here are some reasons why:

Bad Idea: The initial pitch of The Borgias used the tagline “The Original Crime Family.” (Clearly, some Showtime execs were still roiling with Sopranos envy). Problematic and potentially offensive as this concept might have been, it also suggested a level of wit that the show never delivered. From the start, The Borgias was a bloated soap opera that also trafficked in epic-pageantry-at-the-movies clichés.

Bad History: Those who are benchmarking the decline of Western civilization, take note. I can trace a slippery slope that began with a clever idea – maybe audiences would care about historical figures more if they were attractive? So we had The Tudors, where Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, god help us) looked like thin Elvis, and never lost his washboard abs or pouty sneer. But at least The Tudors usually had some nodding acquaintance with actual history. The Borgias is the next step down – everybody is great-looking and well-built (see Bad Casting below), but as far as I can tell (and I’m not an expert on Renaissance Italy, but I do know how to look things up in Wikipedia), many of the key plot points are pretty much made up. Some of the names and political battles may be anchored in reality, but not much else is.

Bad Casting: Spend even a few minutes with The Borgias and you’ll quickly figure out the primary casting criteria for nearly everybody. (Hint: it’s not the acting.) This is one hot group of people, but also one notably lacking in any sense of presence or stature. The younger ones mostly speak in contemporary British accents, full of casual inflections and not remotely suggesting anything aristocratic. (Close your eyes and you might think you’re in line at Sainsburys, listening to a bunch of kids talking about a Renaissance Faire.) Presumably to compensate, we also have a handful of big actors of the old school – notably Jeremy Irons, briefly Derek Jacoby – hamming it up for dear life. Irons, of course, is Borgias’ star, playing Rodrigo (who later become Pope Alexander VI). His desiccated Eton patrician-ness could scarcely be less suitable, and his big shtick here seems to be using his tongue to locate old food in his teeth. But at least, he’s doing something. 

Bad Taste: I suppose this could refer to several Borgias elements, but what I’m really thinking of here is the violence. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not especially queasy, and I’ve watched plenty of graphic TV shows – Dexter, Oz – and been able to keep my distance. But these are shows where the violence seemed necessary and rooted to the plot. In The Borgias, I get the feeling that the creative team was just itching to come up with something visually horrifying to throw into every episode. Prolonged underwater exsanguination is a favorite – I can think of at least three instances, including a lamprey attack. And while some of it might be plot-related, mostly it feels gratuitous, or worse – an ongoing design element, not unlike Downton Abbey’s flowered wallpaper and fine china.

Bad Faith: Somewhere along the way, creator Neil Jordan lost interest in The Borgias, and apparently so did the execs at Showtime. (I know how they feel, but hey – I wasn’t making money on it.) The show ended abruptly after the third season, without a hint of closure. A two-hour movie finale was promised but never materialized (though in an extraordinarily underwhelming gesture to the show’s fans, the script was issued as an eBook.) In other words, audiences were denied even get the minimal reward of an ending.


So that’s that. We watched The Borgias, and trust me – you don’t have to. But please do help us out – what should we be catch-up watching?

Categories: Criticism, Television

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3 replies »

  1. Well I also managed to sit through all three seasons of The Borgias – partly for some actors I really liked, partly because of the beautiful costumes( yes I’m a girl lol) but mostly because I was always interested in Renaissance Italy and the historical Borgias so I watch and read everything about them. I agree that the show is disappointing: too soapy, melodramatic and BORING and yes, you’re right: almost everything on it is made up and has nothing to do with the actual history.
    Are you aware of the other series, Borgia Faith and Fear, written by Tom Fontana for Europe? Two seasons are on Netflix now and the third and final one is coming this fall. It’s not flawless either but, in my opinion, a much better take on the family. I wouldn’t comment on its acting for, as I think, it’s a matter of taste after all – even if I personally liked nearly all the actors… but in any case the show is made with MUCH more respect for historical facts and authenticity. And also the story itself is IMO a lot more clever, complex and, at the same time, more fast moving and entertaining. Can only recommend it.

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