Papacy without Purpose: A Review of Showtime’s The Borgias

Papacy without Purpose: Showtime’s The Borgias

April 3rd, 2011

Things do come in threes, don’t they?

As critics across the country confront a trio of drama series which all fall into the broad category of costume drama (albeit with some divergence in terms of additional variation), comparisons are inevitable. While I have yet to check out Starz’s Camelot (in part because I fear what they’ve done to Malory’s Morte, and in part because I just haven’t had the time), I watched the first four episodes (two of which debut Sunday night at 9/8c) of Showtime’s The Borgias after having watched the first six episodes of Game of Thrones over the course of the previous day, and…well, it was not a helpful comparison for the Showtime series.

I’ll have more on Game of Thrones in the days ahead, but I actually think that The Borgias is worth some time – while it starts slow and struggles to find a particular “purpose” as a result, there are moments which betray an actual interest in exploring the political complexities which result from the Borgia family’s winding path to power. The problem is that they are both too infrequent and too brief, giving way to a paint-by-numbers historical costume drama which fills in the blanks instead of coloring outside the lines.

In some ways, I think The Borgias wants to be the Papal equivalent to Downton Abbey more than a show like The Tudors (a logical comparison given that show was Showtime’s last foray into historical drama). Indeed, Neil Jordan (who won an Oscar for writing The Crying Game) suggests in press materials that “I want to explore the Vatican as an enclosed alternative universe,” which sounds much like Downton Abbey’s efforts to see early twentieth-century England through the lens of the last vestiges of the out-of-touch British nobility.

However, Downton Abbey was very much about all levels of the eponymous dwelling: by focusing on the vast difference between the concerns of those upstairs and downstairs, the show could give numerous different perspectives on the events within the palace. There was a sense of dimension, a focus on the “everyday” that would be able to ground any of the larger romantic or “political” developments ongoing above.

Obviously, this is not an entirely fair comparison given that The Borgias is focusing on a ruthless, politically-minded family whose purchase of the Papacy led to a complicated reign in which religion and power converged and conflicted, and I would not say that one could expect the Showtime series to play out as Downton Abbey did. That being said, though, I think it could learn a few lessons from the British series in terms of how to make its storylines feel as though they are the least bit natural. The biggest problem I have with the Borgias is the way in which storylines are introduced and explanations are offered: storylines never feel like a logical extension of previous events, but rather an inevitable conclusion to a piece of blatant exposition. Many of the early episodes are built around storylines introduced in simple dialogue exchanges, where complex socio-political circumstances are spun into convenient character introductions without much in the way of reason.

There’s a scene in one of the upcoming episodes where Jeremy Irons’ Rodrigo Borgia (now Pope Alexander VI) leads his youngest son through a map of what we now know as Italy, laying out the various factions which rules the various cities and states. It’s a scene that’s too little too late, as the show had been pulling from that political turmoil as if it were a magician’s hat before that point. We are never given a particularly clear picture of what Italy is supposed to look like, forced to rely on whatever knowledge of history we might have (which for me came from a combination of History of Western Civilization class and Assassin’s Creed II, which took place during this same period and featured many of these characters), and Jordan largely allows us to tread water in the deep end without much in the way of assistance.

It’s not really that “confusing,” to be honest: any basic knowledge of the Papacy will clarify their traditions, and on some level I like being thrown into the deep end and forced to consider things myself. However, confusion is not The Borgias‘ problem. Instead, it struggles because it is a historical drama that lacks any sense of history in its early stages. We are given no context for why Borgia is so hell bent on achieving the Papacy, and thus no real reason to fully understand his decisions once he arrives into the body. Jeremy Irons is a fine actor, and at points one imagines this as a compelling character study, but I don’t really see a character to study. Even if you were to go down the line to Borgia’s son Cesare (Francois Arnaud), who one could argue is its real primary character, there’s not much there beyond a rote struggle between the path his father has chosen and his true desires. We’re thrown into their current predicament so quickly that any sense of a past is elided, making it all feel a bit pointless (especially since Cesare mostly pays lip service to his struggles, rarely allowed to time to explore those questions on his own due to being wrapped up in his father’s various plots).

There just isn’t any space in these early episodes for larger questions to be explored: Jordan acknowledges that he is looking at an enclosed environment, but the rigidity means the show never quite gets beyond the intrigue of it all. As the plot goes on, things open up: characters travel to other locations where they can begin their own stories, and the political and religious intrigue begins to pick up pace after losing some steam following the premiere. And yet, even then it feels like the show is moving into other spaces that have a certain rigidity to them, still unwilling to allow the show’s locations to feel like something more than elaborately designed setpieces.

The sets are elaborately designed, and the scene which opens the third episode is an example of a setpiece that quite effectively dials into a sense of history in a particularly gruesome fashion. The scene has a sense of purpose and a sense of swagger: it’s charming without being silly (a line the show crosses a few times), humorous without feel as though it was designed to be expressly funny. This is not a show that can be wholly serious, and I agree with some of my fellow critics who felt the show struggles a bit by trying to have it both ways in regards to the balance between self-seriousness and scenery-chewing camp. But within that balance there are some strong performances, and some interesting ideas about the intersection of religion, power and honor within this time period, and the potential to do something more with those ideas in the future.

I just wish that the show would do more to indicate that potential. History shouldn’t feel this formulaic, or this random: the show, by evoking (and portraying Machiavelli) explicitly taps into the role that a single political figure with ambition can play in shaping world events, but the show’s sense of scale is too limited to actually explore the impact of the new Pope’s actions. The show may feature establishing shots of the vast Roman countryside, or the expanse of Rome out the windows of the Vatican, but the fact is that this is an insular view of a single family that at this early stage is telling more than it’s showing.

It’s a view I’ll keep watching, however: I’m curious to see whether this introduction into the world will give way to more detailed character studies even as the political situation inevitably works itself towards a war. That balance should prove an interesting one, and given that Jordan scripted the entire series (much like Julian Fellowes did with Downton Abbey) I am curious what sort of long-form storytelling he has in mind. As individual episodes, I’m not sure the show is all that compelling: the storylines feel random, his skills of exposition not exactly what one would call adept. If he pulls off the longer storyline, however, there’s a chance that he could build some momentum for future seasons.

If, of course there are future seasons at all. My biggest question for The Borgias is where, precisely, it fits into the Showtime brand. It obviously picks up where The Tudors left off, but is this a network interested in being associated with historical epics? Starz seems to have taken over that territory with the success of Spartacus (and with their move into a similar space with Pillars of the Earth and Camelot), and I have to wonder whether Showtime is interested in continuing down this path. This, by far, feels like the most “prestige”-driven series in Showtime’s lineup, and one could argue that Jordan and Irons could draw considerable Emmy attention given their pedigree. However, I have to wonder if a show with lavish production values is a good investment when it seems so niche within the network’s larger brand: while pay cable networks are smart to diversify in order to draw a wide subscriber base (given that convincing someone to subscribe for a single show is just the same as convincing someone who watches everything when advertising is not involved), how much is it costing Showtime to remain in this particular niche? Is a legacy Emmy nomination for comedy superstar (TM Chris Rock circa 2005 Oscars) Jeremy Irons and some costume/set design nominations to pad their overall nomination count going to bring in enough subscribers to justify spending tens of millions on a project with limited commercial appeal?

This is a solid and interesting show, but its purpose (both within the narrative and to Showtime as a network) is admittedly elusive, and I’m curious to see if that changes over the course of its nine-episode season.

Cultural Observations

  • This is a Canadian co-production of sorts, so there’s plenty of Canadian figures both in front of and behind the camera. Most notable, of course, is Colm Feore, who plays the ostensible “villain” in the piece if such a thing exists in a show where actions blur the line between good and evil in such a fashion. I’ve always liked Feore, so his presence was welcome (and he does a fine job of carrying a storyline in which he is largely independent of the other characters).
  • There’s one scene in episode three, I believe, that is just way off base in terms of tone. I was shocked to realize that Jordan was writing the entire thing himself, as I would have expected more consistency in such an instance.
  • In terms of further comparisons to Game of Thrones, there’s a showdown of alumni from the UK version of Skins: considering that GoT has Chris from Series 1/2, and Borgias has Freddy from Series 3/4, I don’t think that’s exactly a fair fight.
  • Seriously, though, lots of Assassin’s Creed flashbacks here: for those who want to spend more time in this world, they’re worth checking out. Start with II, and move onto Brotherhood once the price drops a bit – great stuff.
  • Will not likely be offering continuing coverage of the show, given that my attention on Sunday evenings will be going to the HBO series to which I am more attached, but I might check in at the end of the season with some overall thoughts.
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