‘The Borgias is the sordid saga of one of the most remarkable and legendary families in history. Set in 15th century Italy at the height of the Renaissance, The Borgias chronicles the corrupt rise of patriarch Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy, where he proceeds to commit every sin in the book to amass and retain power, influence and enormous wealth for himself and his family. The Borgia family changed the face of Italy and Catholicism, and inspired works like Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.‘
The Borgias was created for Showtime by writer/director Neil Jordan, a well-known figure in the film industry probably best known for films such as The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire. He had spent nine years trying to get The Borgias going as a movie when Showtime approached him to make a series. The Canadian-Irish-Hungarian co-production was filmed at the Korda Film Studios in Hungary in five massive soundstages, and cost a whopping $40 million to film the 9 episode run. The series proved to be one of Showtime’s biggest hits this year averaging 3.3 million weekly viewers and outperforming the highest-rated season of The Tudors by 20% (season four, 2.7 million).
Being a historical drama, The Borgias is largely aimed at an older audience, slightly more skewed towards female viewers. But with their campaign to promote The Borgias as ‘The Original Crime Family’, Showtime were definitely hoping to get in more of the male audience who were fans of shows like The Sopranos, and movies like The Godfather. And it seemed to work for them; The Borgias pilot episode pulled in the network’s largest premiere audience for a drama series in seven years.
The series runs at a much slower pace than many people would be used to from other historical dramas, but this reflects the series’ focus on political manoeuvring and character relationships as opposed to big historical battles or similar events. As is usual for a historical drama, there are a number of historical inaccuracies in the series, but they are generally quite minor, such as characters who should know each other meeting for the first time in the show. The bigger inaccuracies are generally put in the show to help the audience understand better what is going on and what’s at stake by exposing characters to situations they didn’t actually take part in. But in general, they stick fairly close to the history, because the history is just that interesting. Sometimes the truth is better than any fiction.
One big difference from other Showtime historical series like The Tudors and Camelot (which is technically fantasy, but it is in the same vein), is that the sex is quite toned down in this series (beyond the pilot anyway). While sexual indiscretions are a large part of the Borgia story, and arguably one of the most famous aspects of the family – they don’t play a big part in the show. Or I should say, they are in there, but they aren’t shoved in as just another gratuitous sex scene which has been a major criticism of the other shows I mentioned.
This clip gives you an idea of the language and the look of the show, as well as a brief look at the main characters. The scene takes place during the papal elections where Rodrigo Borgia is buying votes.
There are a number of themes at play in The Borgias. One of the common themes is: Do the ends justify the means? Most of these characters go to very extreme lengths to achieve their goals, even starting a war in one case, and they generally have noble goals. But they are generally left wondering if they’re doing the right thing, which is something everyone can empathise with.
The show revolves entirely around power. What people are willing to do to get it, what it does to them, and what they use it for. Also highlighted to great effect is how completely powerless women generally were in this time period. They are treated as property to be traded and sold for the political gain of men, a lesson which naive Lucrezia learns the hard way.
Many of the most satisfying moments in the series are where the female characters claim some measure of power over the men that control their lives. But even they are often corrupted by it.
The old adage that ‘No villain sees himself as the bad guy’ rings true in this series. And generally, these people aren’t completely without good points. Rodrigo Borgia was responsible for the height of corruption in the Catholic Church, but he was also a big patron of the arts, and largely responsible for the flourishing of many of the great names in the renaissance. He was also known for his benign treatment of the Jews.
The Borgias does a fantastic job of building tension throughout each episode and over the course of the series. Little hints are dropped throughout the episode about upcoming conflicts, and we’re constantly reminded about what’s at stake so that when the conflict comes to a head, it has a huge impact. One particularly good example of this was in the episode Lucrezia’s Wedding. The episode starts with The Pope telling Vanozza that she won’t be able to attend her daughter’s wedding for political reasons, a pretty harsh and emotional scene that sets up the conflict for the episode. Then throughout the episode, the various Borgia children try to persuade The Pope to reconsider, but he refuses to discuss it. Eventually, Cesare defies the Pope’s orders and brings Vanozza to the wedding after party. We’ve spent the entire episode hearing about what’s at stake with this wedding, and exactly why the groom’s family wants Vanozza nowhere near it – so we understand the fury of the Pope at being defied. But of course it’s a public event so he can’t make a scene. This scene literally had me holding my breath. My description doesn’t really do it justice, but if you watch the show, you will understand what I mean.
Another big reveal comes in the guise of a battle that never actually happened. But I don’t have a problem with this inaccuracy as it perfectly illustrates the stakes in the best way possible. We’d been hearing throughout the preceding episodes how hopelessly outmatched the Italian forces are by the invading French, but it only becomes completely apparent in this shocking battle scene.
From what I understand, a large portion of the production team was the same between The Tudors and The Borgias, and their expertise is evident in the high production values of both shows. The Tudors was generally a lot less historically accurate than The Borgias which is surprising considering that the history of Henry VIII and the Tudor family is far more well-known than the history of The Borgia family. The Tudors copped a lot of flak for its inaccuracies from various quarters. I think it’s very important to remember in a historical drama that while you can play around with the history, you need to have a very good reason to do it. Where The Borgias succeeds is that virtually all of the inaccuracies are in there to make things easier for the audience, not merely to put in a flashy scene or set piece – something which I felt The Tudors was often guilty of.
The Tudors was also generally more of a one man show focused on the exploits of the most famous royal womaniser in history, and the show reflected that with frequent gratuitous sex scenes and a rotating female cast. The Tudors was less focused on the politics that were happening at the time than the King’s reactions to what had happened behind the scenes, but politics is the main appeal of The Borgias, and it pulls it off magnificently. The political maneuverings of the various players in Europe is interesting enough to sustain a show without the need for big action sequences. The cast is absolutely fantastic, and the high production values really make you feel like you are looking at Rome in the Renaissance.
The few issues I have with the show have to do with the pacing. The main stories involving the Borgia family are very well fleshed out, and play out over time quite well, but the subplots involving their enemies generally feel very rushed. I think they could have done with more time spent following them around, as their story is just as interesting. And it probably would have led to a more satisfying conclusion to the first series.
Overall, I’d highly recommend this series to anyone with even a slight interest in historical drama. It is probably the best example of the genre that I have seen.
What I Liked – Fantastic characters. Great use of tension. Focus on politics rather than sex.
What I Didn’t Like – Some pacing issues. Secondary stories needed to be fleshed out a bit more.
Rating – 4 out of 5 (Really Enjoyable)