It is 1492 Columbus has just discovered the America's, Ferdinand and Isabella have kicked the moors out of Spain, and with the pope on his deathbed Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) makes a power play to ascend to the Holy See. The stage is set for another Showtime historical Drama.
Coming off the back of the very successful Tudors series (even Henry ran out of wives in the end), Showtime have stuck with their audience and lavished the Borgia's with the big budget treatment. The story will be less familiar here in the UK, but in Renaissance Italy the Borgia's were a dynastic family (from Spain), contemporaries of the Medici's and Machiavelli. The tag line for the series is `The original crime family' and with good reason - Rodrigo and his family will stop at nothing in their quest for temporal and spiritual power, even Tony Soprano could admire their black manoeuvres, indeed the family's reputation for ruthlessness inspired Mario Puzo's to mold the characters featured in "The Godfather" after the real life Borgia's, yet like Tony they have to grapple with the reality of their actions.
The first season runs to just nine episodes, setting the stage, inviting us into Renaissance Italy, and introducing the players. The premiere starts with the death of the reigning Pope, which leaves a vacancy that ambitious Cardinal Rodrigo (Irons) intends to claim at any price. Through back room deals and other nefarious deeds, Rodrigo ascends to power while making a firm enemy of Cardinal Della Rovere (a solid Colm Feore)--an act that will have long range repercussions as the exiled Cardinal aligns with outside forces to unseat the Pope. Appointing his eldest son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) as a Cardinal, second son Juan (David Oakes) to military leadership, and arranging an advantageous marriage for daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger)--the Pope is moves to shore up his political position. In the game of great families each child is a chess piece moved for advantage, and must grapple with playing their part as they deal with personal drama, danger, romance, and intrigue.
As the duel plays out with Cardinal Della Rovere, each side reaches out for allies to crush the other, and this is a primary story arc as the season reaches its conclusion.
"The Borgias" is a terrific technical production, and I'm sure owes plenty to the experienced gained from producing the Tudors. The sets, costumes, and period details all look great - while I'm sure an historian would pick holes in the lack of dirt, grime and warts, this is entertainment so why make it ugly? The action sequences, especially when it comes to the battlefield, are tense and brutal--with superb effects. The screenplays are smart, like the Tudors the action is tweaked, condensed and emphasised to wrap it into accessible one hour episodes, but there's also the slow build up of events and actual character development that heightens the impending drama.
I wasn't that impressed with Irons portrayal of Rodrogo as so sure and uncompromising in everything, that I'm not sure that it gives much depth. Arnaud has a quiet intensity as, perhaps, the show's most intriguing and complex character. And Grainger has a subtlety that I loved, developing from a complete innocent to a power player that's great to watch.
In essence you should know what you're getting here - an historical drama with the full range of perspectives on the human condition in the 15th century. The explicit sinfulness of the Pope may raise a few eyebrows, but hey folks it's a well documented historical fact and does make the show what it is. If you're ok with that you should enjoy the show.
It's not a completely convincing historical re-enactment with 100% fidelity to the life of the times, it's not trying to be, but it's damn good entertainment, and we've really enjoyed the story so far, just leaving the question - does power corrupt, or is corruption powerful?