The first requirement for a period drama is that it looks lavish and seems authentic, and “The Borgias” does so admirably. The big-budget Showtime series was filmed in Hungary and the Czech Republic. While the costumes themselves look a little too new for the average citizen, this tale of Rome, which begins in 1492--the year Christopher Columbus sailed for the East Indies and hit the Bahamas instead--tells the story of “the original crime family.”
Of course, that tagline invites comparisons to cable TV’s original crime family, “The Sopranos.” And in this case, I’d have to say that the costumes are more memorable than the characters. Although Jeremy Irons is Tony Soprano-like as Rodrigo Borgia--the Spanish cardinal who bribed, bullied, or murdered his way to the Papacy and all the power that office brought--the rest of the cast is accomplished but somehow generic. What’s more, the writing sometimes is a little too dressy, too melodramatic.
But the story itself is so tawdry (there’s nudity and violence) and the sense of period and pageantry so rich that audiences will find themselves pulled into the drama. Overall, it really is well done. It’s Showtime’s answer to Starz’ “Camelot,” which debuted the same week.
“The Borgias,” the brainchild of Neil Jordan (“Breakfast on Pluto”), takes its cue from “The Sopranos” in sheer number of episodes. The first season features just nine of them: The Poisoned Chalice, The Assassin, The Moor, Lucrezia’s Wedding, The Borgias in Love, The French King, Death on a Pale Horse, The Art of War, and Nessuno (Nobody). They’re contained on three 50-gig Blu-ray discs.
After Pope Innocent VIII died, Cardinals vied to assume the Papacy, but it was Borgia who emerged on top by charging his offspring with the task of buying or “leveraging” enough votes to make him Pope Alexander VI. Once in power, Borgia’s story became one of patronage, treachery, excess, violence, and lechery. Rome became as nearly as debauched as it was during the worst days of the Roman Empire, and Borgia presided over a depraved and dangerous city with the haughty openness of a Godfather. He openly had affairs, he hosted scandalous “events,” and he continued to bribe, bully, and wage war in order to not just hold his power, but to attain even more. Given the times and the way that other princes behaved, Borgia was just being a true “Renaissance man.”
Irons brings him to life with appropriate complexity, his eyes revealing a constant state of evaluating and scheming. Other characters are more two-dimensional, though I doubt very much that it’s the fault of the actors. The writing simply isn’t as strong as “The Sopranos,” and that makes it difficult for Francois Arnaud to add much depth to Borgia’s son, Cesare, or Holliday Grainger to do the same with the character of Lucrezia. Thankfully, though, the writers fought off the impulse to throw in all sorts of four-letter words, which would have made the drama seem less authentic. Other than “damn” and “hell” and “whore”--all words that were common (and appropriate)--there’s nothing here to destroy the illusion.
Season 1 has a run-time of seven hours and 47 minutes.
High production values make this production stunning to watch in HD. The first season was digitally shot using Arri Alexa and Sony F35 cameras, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer preserves the gorgeous colors and remarkable detail. If there are flaws or artifacts, I didn’t notice them. Sometimes digitally shot films can look a little too plastic, but “The Borgias” has a smooth-but-not-shiny surface. Black levels are perfect, edge delineation creates a nice sense of 3-dimensionality, and the lighting brings out the best in colors that seem richly saturated. “The Borgias” is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
You notice the bass when the cannons boom and the high-end treble when bells ring, but for much of the season it’s dialogue that’s predominant. What’s striking is that the clarity is such that even the silences seem to resonate. The background music and ambient sounds are nicely prioritized so as to complement rather than compete with the dialogue, and the overall effect is pleasing. The featured audio is an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, with an additional option in Spanish 2.0 and subtitles in English SDH and English.
Apart from BD-Live access on all three discs, there isn’t anything here. Online you can see featurettes on the “Casting of Cesare,” and watch an episode from Season Six of “Dexter,” episodes 1-2 of “Gigolos,” and Episodes 1-2 of “Californication.” Like that has anything to do with historical drama.
It’s impossible to watch the story of the Borgias without passing judgment on members of the Roman Catholic Church, and that might be a little depressing for some people, given the recent abuse scandals. But there’s no denying the power of the story itself, and the lavish way in which Showtime brings it to life. There’s power in pageantry, and despite its shortcomings “The Borgias” succeeds as big-budget entertainment.