Showtime’s latest attempt to make premium programming look more like cinema comes in the form of The Borgias, a new series about notorious 15th century Pope Alexander VI and his homicidal family. Showtime has unabashedly promoted the series as a new incarnation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, drawing endless comparisons between modern mafia culture and papal corruption during the Italian Renaissance. They’ve even dubbed The Borgias “The Original Crime Family” in the show’s tagline. Knowing they had already secured the demographic that made HBO’s The Tudors marginally popular, they decided to make a play for the infinitely larger group of diehard Sopranos fans out there. And why not? They can certainly back up their claims. But this is a simplistic and (hopefully) short-lived approach — an obvious attempt to provide an accessible link to audiences who might not like period pieces. It also helps get the male audience involved, assuring that The Borgias is not just another primetime soap opera. Unfortunately it has the downside of suggesting that the series is just some tepid knockoff of another great story that already proved itself superior some four decades ago. This time with puffy costumes.

Not so. Oscar winner Neil Jordan, who shocked and awed audience with The Crying Game, is the mastermind behind The Borgias, which stars Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia / Pope Alexander. Irons secured his own Academy Award 20 years ago playing the morally ambiguous Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. It’s amazing no one ever thought of pairing these formidable and distinguished talents together before. Both understand that treachery and cunning do not constitute a departure from the ordinary, but an alignment with it. Therefore they are a perfect match to tell this tale about the fluid, often arbitrary line between good and evil.

In 1492, while Christopher Columbus was out “discovering” the new world, political and religious corruption reigned in the old one. The Borgias opens on the death of Pope Innocent VIII, which left the papacy open to the highest bidder. Enter a rather demure looking Irons as Borgia, the Spanish cardinal willing to trade all his worldly possessions for the highest honor in all of Europe, despite the racism and moral outrage standing in his way. After bribing his way into the papacy with the help of his two oldest children, Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Juan (David Oakes), who manage to clandestinely infiltrate the conclave, the newly crowned Alexander VI begins to secure his place within it, thwarting his enemies with everything from manipulation to murder. In the process he picks up a secret assassin (the chillingly convincing Sean Harris), a second mistress (the captivating Lotte Verbeek), a bucketful of heinous plans, and a seriously inflated ego.

The Borgias in question include the Pope himself, his four illegitimate children — Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) and the young Gioffre (Aidan Alexander) — and Vanossa (Joanne Whalley), the children’s mother and Alexander’s favorite mistress, who closely embodies the traditional role of wife. Even though the historical Rodrigo had at least two other known (and likely hoards of unknown) children, this central clan is the most famous for a reason. It is already abundantly clear that the series will largely revolve around Cesare, whose devotion to his family knows no bounds, despite his underlying desire to escape them. It is this inner conflict, plus Arnaud’s smoldering, Enrique-Iglesian good looks, that sets Cesare apart as the show’s tortured antihero. Cesare is severely conniving and treacherous, but his intelligence and heart are meant to offset the horror of his crimes. By the end of the first episode, he has even surpassed his father in strategy and initiative, making him the leading force to be reckoned with in the family. Of course, it is too soon to tell if the virtually unknown Arnaud will be able to pull off the multiple dimensions Cesare will have to embody, but let’s hope so, because it’s unlikely the camera will stray too far from him.

Less emphasis is placed on the character of Juan, but Oakes delivers the kind of sniveling snobbery typical of a disenfranchised son with a chip on his shoulder. His violence and impulsiveness make him a liability to the family, especially compared to Cesare, who adopts the utmost discretion on delicate matters. Ironically, however, Juan holds the military position that the cleric Cesare would prefer.

Grainger is prepping herself for her burgeoning presence on the show as the famous femme fatale, Lucrezia, who helped secure alliances for her father through marriage. At the opening of the show she is still too young to be a political force, but her training begins almost immediately with some well-placed advice from the Pope’s second mistress. “Your beauty … can be deadly when well used,” she explains to the girl. As is stands now, Lucrezia’s giggling vapidity makes it difficult to think of her as a successful manipulator. Apparently Jordan & company want to portray her as an innocent who is corrupted by the vulgarity of her surroundings, but Grainger seems a bit too green to master the ambiguity required of her. She may have to adjust her game to grow into the role, but she is far from hopeless. She brings a natural unrelenting curiosity and dark intrigue to the character, which foreshadow her eventual contamination. This may be more the product of a great script than passable acting, but it’s no secret that one can help compensate for the other.

It’s already apparent that the real backbone of The Borgias is its script. Almost every scene from beginning to end of the premiere is utterly captivating, and the cinematography and costumes aren’t too shabby either. The story is easy to follow but far from pandering. Where the acting is not strong, it is always adequate. The supporting characters are almost more interesting to watch than the main cast — especially Harris, who eerily boasts that he has “smothered infants in their beds” as a job endorsement, and the poised Whalley, who manages to play the scorned wife without succumbing to the usual antagonistic whining typical of similar characters. Again, this strength lies both on the page and in the performance, but the two merge delightfully in the role of Vanossa. Whalley has proven her worth; let’s hope Jordan can keep up the good work.

As for Irons, there is much to be analyzed about his performance, but that’s another review entirely. Suffice it to say for our purposes that it’s close to flawless, enriched with subtleties that are so masterful they’re almost imperceptible. Jordan has hit it out of the park on almost every aspect of his new series. Maybe Showtime can catch up and readjust its marketing campaign. The Borgias are so much more than a typical crime family.

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