When The Tudors premiered on Showtime in 2007 I was pretty much over the moon. I’m a fan of history and I’ve always had an interest in Anne Boleyn, the conniving and eventually ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII. The network premiered the pilot and second episode on their website about a week before it aired on television and I devoured every second of it. In fact, I devoured every episode of the first and second season with rapt attention. And then something happened, or rather, someone happened. Perhaps it’s my somewhat ridiculous devotion to a decapitated queen from the 1500s, or perhaps it’s the fact that I enjoy characters with some spunk, but I detest Jane Seymour, Henry’s plain jane third wife. Oh, I still watched The Tudors and I still enjoyed it, but it wasn’t quite the same. The interesting bits started to be about religious unrest and battles. While Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ performance was good he started becoming less believable as the ginger, rotund, and ill mannered king as time went on. Henry spent the majority of his screen time engaging in hysterical tantrums while everyone else’s role became placation. Joss Stone put in an impressive turn as jovial fourth wife, Anne of Cleaves, but the part was about as short as the annulled marriage. Kathryn Howard is my second favorite wife, and Tamzin Merchant was certainly good as the silly girl who couldn’t take on a king, but I quickly started to become annoyed with her childlike, oversexed, idiocy. Basically, what I’m saying here is that I loved the first two seasons but thought the final two were just okay.
Still, when The Tudors concluded I found myself somewhat teary at the finale and couldn’t help pondering what quasi-smutty, bodice ripping, overly dramatic series I’d watch now (I hadn’t yet discovered Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and even if I had Roman times can’t replace my beloved Renaissance Europe). I should have know that Showtime was wondering the same thing, because this year they premiered their new series about a powerful Renaissance family struggling with control and passion; The Borgias.
I was familiar with the historical Borgias, a wealthy Italian family of Spanish origin, but only minimally. So I was pretty excited about this series. I imagined it would be filled with murders, sex, and political scandal. And then, there in the first two episodes, which aired on Showtime April 3rd, there were murders, sex, and political scandals! But let’s slow down; this show centers primarily around five people; the patriarch of the family Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), eldest cleric son Cesare (François Arnaud), daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), son Juan (David Oaks), and mistress Guilia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek).
All the actors were impeccable. Irons is, as always, flawlessly cast as the sleazy Cardinal gunning for the empty papacy, who it’s necessary to despise and revere at the same time. Episode one begins at the death of Pope Innocent VIII. Cardinal Borgia is a hopeful and when the Cardinals go into conclave he charges his eldest son with helping bribe voters from the outside while Rodrigo works from within. Eventually, as history will tell, Borgia is successful in his bid and becomes Pope Alexander VI. One would think it to be slightly problematic that he has four recognized children with Mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei but no one seems to say anything. But he does have the good sense to tell Vannozza that they can’t continue with their, practically public, arrangement once he’s Pope… and then starts something else more discreet with the beautiful Guila Farnese. Historically the name Borgia became synonymous with corruption in the Catholic Church, and with Rodrigo in charge it’s not hard to see why.
Arnaud, a Québécois actor who I’ve never seen in anything but remains persistently familiar, is perfectly conflicted as Cesare Borgia who doesn’t want to devote his life to the church, but is commanded to do so since it’s apparently “the thing to do”. Of course, because we’re talking about a corrupt family in a drama seen through a bodice ripping filter, that doesn’t stop him from cavorting with the young ladies of Rome. This is how he’s introduced, by the way. He has an unusually close relationship with his sister, Lucrezia, lending the audience to believe the writers decided to go along the “incest as fact rather than rumor” route. And he doesn’t seem to mind being in league with a ruthless assassin or poisoning a powerful Cardinal. Well, he’s his father’s son, and he wouldn’t be as interesting if he kept to his vows.
Holliday Grainger, who I’ve seen many times and have long thought to be relatively adorable (and who’s name I’d like to steal) even if her dyed blonde hair brings to mind a version of Amanda Seyfried, has the playful, almost childlike, rebelliousness needed to play the oft-portrayed femme fatale, Lucrezia Borgia. Apart from Pope Alexander, Lucrezia is probably the most well known member of the family. She’s been featured in countless films, operas, television series, and songs and is always a popular figure, next to Elizabeth Báthory, as one of the wicked women of history, guilty of dozens of crimes which she may or may not have committed. She was certainly the Borgia I was most familiar with. But in this she hasn’t received her reputation yet. She’s fourteen years old, though she appears far older, at the start. She’s unmarried but along with the rest of the crew she enjoys a fairly lavish lifestyle, which apparently involves spying on Cesare while he’s getting it on with nubile young throwaway women. I’ll give Grainger credit here with a few things; while she doesn’t look anywhere near fourteen she does manage to cast the air of selfish naivety that comes with adolescence, such as asking what her title will be once her father becomes Pope (the answer being, of course, none as the Pope shouldn’t actually have kids) and running about their property not quite realizing how privileged she is.
Oaks as Juan is perhaps the least used of the Borgias in the first two episodes, though he’s sufficient enough as the cocky soldier who’s perhaps a little eager to put in to advance the Borgia name but really just likes the image of himself in a uniform.
The characters that always intrigue me most in these sorts of stories are usually the females. The ones behind the men, who can’t get much but run with what they have. Guilia Farnese was of particular interest to me. She comes to confession because of an abusive spouse and leaves as mistress to the most powerful man in Christendom. She understands the deal and plays her cards well. She’s quiet, but I believe there’s far more cunning than her soft demeanor would suggest.
And of course, because costume dramas tend to be; the costumes and sets are pretty damned amazing. I wouldn’t mind walking around for a day in any of Lucrezia’s dresses or take a stroll in any of the lush apartments or marbled corridors. I think Showtime has another hit on its hands. As excited as I was and how much I loved The Tudors off the bat… I think I enjoyed The Borgias a little more. And I suppose that’s not so ridiculous, corrupt kings are almost passé compared to downright criminal Popes.