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"The Borgias" Review: What Would Rome Be Without a Good Plot?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 4, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 4, 2011 |

Typically when reviewing a pilot television episode, unless it is mostly worthless and unredeemable, we try not to indict the show based on its introduction. We look at the premise, at the characters, at the actors playing them, and we attempt to surmise if there’s any promise for the series. There are countless brilliant television shows that began with weak pilots, the NBC Thursday night comedies (“The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock,” and “Parks and Recreation) not least among them. But they all displayed potential, and each — at their peaks — met that promise.

Showtime’s new series, “The Borgias,” which premiered last night, may be one of the few television pilots with the exact opposite problem: It may never be able to live up to the pilot episode. It was flat-out brilliant — strong characters, dense plotting, engrossing story lines, and sex, murder, intrigue, all bathed in bloody religion. At times, it felt a little unhinged, but thanks to Jeremy Irons — as well as Neil Jordan who created the series and wrote and directed the pilot episode — it never went off the rails. This is not a Starz caliber costume drama — it is, at least based on the pilot, the “Tudors” and “Rome” minus the dead spots, the agonozing pacing, the lecturing and pontification and the endless political strategizing. It is good. I only hope that it can keep up the pace without careening into shitballs “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” territory before the third episode.

“The Borgias” is being described by Showtime’s marketing department as the original crime family, the 15th Century Sopranos, and it’s far more apt than I expected. It is based on the House of Borgia, a family that rose in prominence in the 1400s and 1500s and, apparently, made a lot of enemies. I’m certain that Neil Jordan took some liberties with the family, but based on the first couple of paragraphs in the Wikipedia entry, the pilot depicts plenty of the “adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder” for which the family was known. I don’t dare to read further into the Wikipedia entry for fear of having future episode spoiled, but given the events of the first weeks of Rodrigo Borgias’s reign as Pope Alexander VI, I have no doubt that the family is ripe with story lines of greed, murder, sex and corruption.

The series opens in 1492, as one Pope is dying and as the College of Cardinals is planning their vote on a successor. Typically, with this sort of history-based show, I would expect that the first episode or, perhaps, the first season would focus on all the Machievellan machinations, backstabs, and murders it would take to elevate Rodrigo Borgia to Pope. However, all of that is disposed of within the first half hour, and the show quickly kicks into gear. Within the first hour-and-a-half, there are two murders, political manoeuvrings on both sides (some in the College are seeking to have the Pope deposed), a concubine, a Pope-and-his-sort-of-wife throw down, and a triple agent, Micheletto (Sean Harris) who, so far, is the psychotically ruthless star of the show. This guy is fucking heartless, as you’d have to be to outshine Jeremy Irons.

Still, Jeremy Irons as the Pope is, well, he’s Jeremy Irons. What do you expect? He’s a brilliantly delicious anti-hero, someone who is really fun to watch do bad, bad things. François Arnaud is also quite excellent as the Pope’s oldest son and closest ally, a man who would rather be wearing armor than the cloth, and a man who is also madly, creepily in love with his 14-year-old sister. David Oakes is the younger son, the soldier slash jester, while Joanne Whalley as the not-quite wife of the Pope is already holding her own as the preceding successor to Carmela Soprano.

I do not typically buy into these TV period soap opera series. I tried very hard to get invested in both “Rome” and “The Tudors” only to lose interest, not because of the quality of those shows, but because of the pacing and subject matter. It is often, too, that these shows seem to elevate costumes and set design over plotting, but Neil Jordan puts a lot of focus on the story without doing so at the expense of the period setting and wardrobe, which ought to easily satiate the costume drama enthusiasts frill fix. It is truly a gripping opening episode, and because the series is only scheduled for six more (and the Medicis have yet to make an appearance), I have no doubt that Jordan can keep up the pace and fill the rest of the series with as much murder, conniving, sex, and political and literal backstabbing as he packed into the opener. With this, AMC’s “The Killing” (review forthcoming) and “Games of Thrones” set to air in a few weeks on HBO, Sunday nights just became the best goddamn television night of the week.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.