The Borgias: Season 1
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The Borgias is a complex, unvarnished portrait of one of history’s most intriguing families. Oscar®-winner Jeremy Irons stars as Rodrigo Borgia, the cunning, manipulative patriarch of the Borgia family who ascends to the highest circles of power within Renaissance-era Italy. The series begins as Rodrigo (Irons), becomes Pope Alexander VI, propelling him, his two Machiavellian sons Cesare and Juan, and his scandalously beautiful daughter, Lucrezia, to become the most powerful and influential family of the Italian Renaissance.
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I have tried not to compare it to THE TUDORS, but I didn't succeed there. Like THE TUDORS the actors and actresses were all first rate, excellent actors and actresses. Jeremy Irons is a living legend and the most known of the cast. Colm Fiore is an excellent actor, and the rest of the cast was no less radiant. The sets and costumes were spectacular without a doubt.
But unlike THE TUDORS, THE BORGIAS series still lacked "something". I want to say that it didn't have quite the same sexual tension and intrigue that THE TUDORS had. And, I want to say that the cast of THE TUDORS was just a "little bit better". JRM almost "over acts" as Henry 8th, but his sex appeal and magnetism makes that series. And quite frankly, THE TUDORS was in no short supply of beautiful people.
The only thing that made me uncomfortable was the season ending. I won't mention exactly what made me uncomfortable because I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't yet seen the whole thing, but I will say, I felt that the series ended rather quickly and abruptly. Over all though, it was a very fine series.
The film is all about power politics even if there are passages around sexual affairs and the rivalries and tensions within the Borgia family. The Papal States were those lands that belonged to the Papacy and that fell between Tuscany, often ruled by the Medici; the Marshes, often ruled by the Sforza family; and the Kingdom of Naples. The rural Papal States were often actually dominated by feudal dukes who had only tentative allegiance to the papacy. Rome was dominated by a range of noble families, such as the Orsini, and all of the major families had relatives who were cardinals, the princes of the Church, and thus were contenders to become pope.
The Borgia family was actually Catalan and Rodrigo Borgia had a mistress and children when his uncle, a pope, named him as a cardinal and he came to Rome. At age 26 he was the vice-chancellor of the papacy, which means he was in charge of the entire curia around the world. This is the second most powerful position in the Vatican. He must have been a superb manager and politician to survive the infighting within the Vatican and after 30 years become Pope Alexander VI.
Alexander VI begins to make political alliances, sealed with the marriages of his children, to build a network of allies to support his papacy. In this way he acts as any secular prince. However, Durant’s book points out the evidence that Alexander VI was also a religious man. This series depicts Alexander as a Christian despite his considerable skills at consolidating power. Jeremy Irons is beyond fantastic at being able to show the multiple facets of this fascinating character from history.
The series also depicts the rivalry between Alexander VI and Cardinal Della Rovere (who later becomes Pope Julius II who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel). Colm Feore plays this role very well since he must play a man of God who also has considerable political skills and sees the Borgia family as an insult on the Papacy and thus sees himself as the necessary antidote to their excesses.
Alexander VI had an illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, who he makes into a Cardinal. However history tells us that Cesare had considerable military skills. This is not explored in the first season of the series and we see Cesare struggling to implement the duties of a Prince of the Church while having an affair with a married woman and having to endure his braggadocios younger brother Juan with whom the Pope has placed the responsibility of military protection of the Papacy and Vatican. Francois Arnaud plays the role well of a smart but passionate man whose loyalty to his father is strained and tested often.
Younger son Juan is played well by David Oakes but a major role has been assigned to daughter Lucrezia, played by Holliday Grainger. In fact, the disastrous first marriage of Lucrezia is a major theme in the first season. We know from history that Lucrezia Borgia was a complex and highly intelligent character. In the first season we begin to see the emergence of her diplomatic skills. The costumes, settings, and other details are very well done. Italian politics was complex and the script actually honors this with a mix of characters from Machiavelli from Florence to the invasion of Charles of France.
I strongly recommend this first season. It is intelligent and well made. Where it may at times play with historic fact, for the most part it sticks to the historic outline of events.
The show commences in 1492, the year that Alexander VI became Pope. Of course, most people will also recognize that year as the same in which Columbus discovered the New World. This date therefore provides an easy connection to the historical timeline that most people can easily relate to. Once Borgia becomes Alexander VI, the saga begins, and the show describes the machinations made to maintain Alexander six on the throne. This is a difficult and sometimes brutal history, and those that are familiar with this history will not be surprised at the events that unfold in the subsequent episodes. The show is largely historically accurate, both in the broad brush strokes and also in some of the minute details.
There is little reason to repeat the expensive information that has already been written about this series including the specific detail covered in each episode. We can easily echo, however, the extremely high-quality production values of the show. We can also echo the view that the acting in the show is extremely well done. As companies like Showtime and HBO and Netflix continue to make extremely lush, well-developed dramas, we see that this move has now become the pinnacle of television production at this current time, one that is now rivaling, and sometimes, surpassing full screen movies. This is also the case with The Borgias. This is a show that is supremely well done, and it shows in every scene. The art sets, the costumes, the colors, the settings, and on and on are superbly well done. In fact, it seems we are watching here something of a quality level that would not even normally be seen in a full screen movie.
The acting, of course, is of greatest importance, and we see with an outstanding cast including Jeremy Irons that the cast are up to every bit of the task and make the story come alive on the screen. It has been rumored that the show cost Showtime approximately $2.5 million per episode to make. That runs out to roughly $25 million per season. When you watch the show on a high definition television BluRay player, you can see where some of that money was spent. The show is lush, lavish, and it makes one marvel at how such shows are being made today. Filming was carried out primarily in Hungary, and there is some use of CGI and certain scenes, but these are barely noticeable, and in fact sometimes are not noticeable at all. The architectural backgrounds to many of the scenes are simply superb, even when they are CGI.
The Borgias had a loyal following for the first three seasons on Showtime. However, in a trend that we have heard all too often before, ratings were not as high as Showtime had hoped, particularly in Season Three. The show was originally slated for a four season run, but because the ratings were slightly disappointing in Season Three, Showtime decided to cancel the series at the end of the third season. This means that the planned Season Four of The Borgias does not exist, and likely will never be made. (This is not unlike the situation that occurred with the critically acclaimed show Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer, which was canceled after two seasons because of low ratings, but was considered to be one of the best drama shows put on television in recent memory.) But in spite of the disappointment that no Season Four is to be made, this is no reason not to watch The Borgias and to follow those first three seasons as they are made. (The same is true of Boss, as well; watching its first two seasons can be an amazing experience, in spite of the truncated ending of the show.)
The Borgias is an excellent historical drama that will help you to learn much about the period, and the papacy of Alexander the sixth. It has some difficult scenes, but the show has seemingly done a reasonable job of attempting to portray the story without making it so consistently brutal that one would not wish to watch it. Watching the show in Blu-ray format with a high-definition television can provide some of the sharpest clearest and most colorful presentations that we've ever seen.
This is an easy five-star recommendation for anyone enjoying historical dramas, or for those interested in the period.