Review: The Borgias 1×1-1×2

How can so much sex, incest, nudity, sword-fighting and poisoning be so boring?

The Borgias

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic for the Summer

First, a request: in one weekend, we’ve had two hours of Camelot, two hours of Spiral, two hours of The Killing, two hours of The Kennedys and now two hours of The Borgias – dear TV networks, please can you just show one episode at a time of your TV shows because I won’t watch them again if you don’t. I won’t have the time. Not that there’s much chance of my watching either Camelot and The Borgias again.

There, I’ve already ruined the ending of this review for you. Oops.

So, let me tell you for why I say that. Here’s something curious. HBO is upper class. It has natural breeding. Showtime is middle class. It looks up to HBO, but it looks down on Starz. And Starz is working class. Each knows their place.

Yet for some strange reason, all of a sudden, Showtime would like to be Starz and Starz would like to be Showtime. Yet there is no social mobility here. Starz cannot be Showtime; Showtime cannot be Starz. Starz may have nicked the bloke who made The Tudors to come up with their own Arthurian version, Camelot, but it’s still a tacky piece of vulgarity – much like Spartacus. But that does at least have the virtue of some cracking plotting, internecine politicking, John Hannah and Xena: Warrior Princess. Oh, and some full frontal nudity, softcore porn, language that would shock a sailor and massive bloodletting.

Starz cannot be Showtime.

Similarly, although Showtime would like to make something like Spartacus, in which there’s sex, incest, murder and swordfights, it ends up hiring Neil Jordan to make something with Jeremy Irons in it that’s largely about the 15th century Catholic church’s papal laws of ascendency. Who’d have though sex, incest, murder and swordfights could be so boring?

Showtime cannot be Starz.

Cue the trailer.

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 (Academy Award® winner Jeremy Irons) 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 unbounded audacity of this original crime family went on to inspire Machiavelli’s The Prince and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Don’t miss a minute of the lavish, sexy, scandalous drama from the creative mind of Academy Award® winner Neil Jordan.

Is it any good?
Is this extremely well-made TV? Yes. Is this in any way enjoyable TV? Hell no.

Now, the BBC made a version of The Borgias back in 1981 that lives in infamy (you can go watch it on YouTube if you want), mainly because of the frequent nudity and graphic violence in it. Who’d have thunk that 30 years on, US cable television would be making something even tamer?

I mean it’s all going on in theory. Lucrezia Borgia is rolling around in the grass with her brother Cesare. Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) is having fights with his mistress (Joanne Whalley) over whether he can shag random women in his offices, now he’s Pope. Cardinals are being poisoned, people are having swordfights in the streets, vicars are wandering through brothels while people shag their ends away, all to the backdrop of the beautiful, glossy Italian countryside and architecture.

Yet – and maybe Spartacus has desensitised me here – it’s all done so very, very coyly, with fade aways and gauze curtains blocking the view of everything, while young British actors who have the charisma of plankton mouth pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue with all the enthusiasm you’d expect if they’d been handed the itinerary of a one-day dishwasher repair course held in Swindon.

There is no fire here. There is no sordid scandal. This is not the “first Italian crime family” we were promised. We just have Jeremy Irons (a lot) wandering around offering wine recommendations and being a bit naughty when it comes to the fine print of papal law. Where is the passion, I ask you (in a Mr Frost stylee)?

Now, the likes of Irons and Whalley, Derek Jacobi in full Derek Jacobi mode, the bloke who played the Archdeacon on Rev and Colm Feore are all just fine. They act well. But something like this needs charisma. That’s what The Tudors did right. No matter how ahistorical that got, it was actually enjoyable watching Jonathan Rhys Meyers running around the place getting his end away. Here we have Jeremy Irons mildly strolling around the place, not looking like he’s having a whole load of fun and wishing he’d rather be somewhere else.

The younger cast, of whom you’d expect a bit more passion maybe, all act like they’re smoking 80 a day, judging by their lung capacity. Sure, we’ve not come to expect much of drippy Ashes to Ashes‘ Montserrat Lombard, but compared to the consummate stage actors next to her and the others, they’re such a bunch of lily-livered mumblers, you half expect Irons to turn to them and say “What’s that Sooty? You’d like to wave your magic wand?”

Worse still, for a show that’s supposed to be all about the sexy, that’s all about hot desirable Italians who had, for example, “heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees, a beautiful complexion, hazel eyes which constantly changed colour, a full, high bosom, and a natural grace which made her appear to ‘walk on air'”, we have a bunch of undernourished, pasty Brits with all the sex appeal of an underpaid Carphone Warehouse Saturday sales team. If you put any one of them on your desktop as a wallpaper, I will assume you have been chemically castrated somehow.

In fact, despite everything the show promised, I was catastrophically bored by the show. I may have mocked The Kennedys for being basically a textbook come to life, but even that had some moderately interesting moments. Any time The Borgias comes across anything interesting, they hide it with some netting, bizarre camera angles and some artfully poised clothing, all while Irons moans about what a hard time he’s having as the most powerful person in the Western World.

So please don’t watch this. If you do, you’ll probably have to gnaw your own leg off to survive.

PS Showtime – Il Principe by Machiavelli is a dreadfully boring book that reads like a combination of a chess manual and a history textbook. If you used that for inspiration, I can see where you went wrong.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

    View all posts