Showtime, having mined period re-creation success with The Tudors, reverts 30 years further into the Renaissance, this time at the Vatican.
I'll leave it for you to decide which history book has it right, but Showtime's presentation of The Borgias, over the course of the first two installments, delves deeply into the duplicity and debauchery of the notorious clan.
Cardinal Rodrigo Borgias (Jeremy Irons) is a Spanish outsider in the realm of Rome, who, upon the passing of Innocent VIII, seizes the opportunity to become Pope Alexander VI.
Alexander has two adult sons, one of cloth, one of armor. The latter Juan (David Oakes) is ill-equipped for his military leadership position, with his personality stored largely within his steel suit. Cleric Cesare (Francois Arnaud), who wants to be the soldier, makes for a better field general, running interference for and policing dad's papal dwelling as a soon to be exalted Cardinal.Cesare also is bestowed the gifts of much of the show's good dialogue and intriguing duties.
Sister Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Grainger) is a 14-year-old family asset, whose single status will soon be traded for marriage and political advantages to be named later.
Alternately, weary and dismissive, taunting and sanctimonious, Irons' Alexander aims to cleanse the sullied throne of St. Peter, as well as any of his adversaries. But for all of his powers, temporal and celestial, Irons can't match the youthful pulchritude of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, his predecessor in Showtime's period palace as Henry VIII in The Tudors.
The Borgias unwinds slowly at the outset, with storyline and character introductions set up against the white smoke manipulation of the College of Cardinals. It's a construct one can imagine is not so dissimilar to an assemblage of FIFA officials.
The action picks up in the second hour with more play for the malevolent and mischievous Micheletto (Sean Harris) and the introduction of Alexander's paramour Giulia and her budding friendship with Lucrezia and its impact on Borgias matriarch Vanozza (Joanne Whaley), herself a graduated mistress.
Promotion for the series billed The Borgias as the first family of crime, and the inspiration for Mario Puzzo's Godfather. Alexander kisses two of his rivals, a la Michael and Fredo Corleone. There are also bits of The Sopranos and Bada Bing with passage from Vatican to mistress Giulia's residence. But when a servant espies the nightly papal booty calls, Alexander's nemesis Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) has canonical law on his side to capsize His Holiness.
It's all very lurid and sordid with confessional come-ons, various characters' tastes for flagellation, incestuous flirtations and poetic language, steeped in religion and sexual innuendo, salted by bits of Latin (concubium).
Perhaps it's best left to Cesare, who asks Micheletto: "Whom are we to trust in this Rome of ours?
Who, indeed. That's why it looks The Borgias looks like it will live up to its tagline of "Sex. Power. Murder. Amen."
The latter is Showtime's entreaty, not mine.
Showtime will air the premiere event on April 3 at 9 p.m., befor The Borgias assumes its regularly scheduled time slot of Sundays at 10 p.m.