Periscope Depth

written by an Italian poet in the thirteenth century

Caught the two-hour premiere of The Borgias, Showtime’s entry into the “Blood, Tits and Scowling” genre that’s all the rage on premium cable. Considering the hard sell that HBO’s putting on Game of Thrones, The Borgias caught me almost completely off guard. Where’s the NYC food truck painted like a sacristy? Whither the “Indulgence” gifts on Facebook? Anyway.

The Borgias: Aside from the usual weaknesses of a pilot episode, an excellent introduction to Vatican politics. Jeremy Irons is suitably restrained, for once, as Rodrigo Borgia, vice chancellor of the College of Cardinals on the eve of being elected Pope Alexander VI. He’s attended by his son, Cesare Borgia (Francois Arnaud), who’s also a priest but ironically seems more ruthless. Cesare seems to hold the role played by Michael Pitt in Boardwalk Empire: the loyal, cold-blooded son, willing to do what the father isn’t. He’s aided in this cause by a conveniently recruited assassin, Micheletto (Sean Harris), and his brother in the papal armies, Juan.

Pope Alexander VI starts the pilot by telling his mistress, Vanossa (Joanne Whalley – remember her? she’s still great), that he can’t be seen with her in public. He ends the episode in a cozy affair with Giulia Farnese (sultry-eyed newcomer Lotte Verbeek), much to the family’s chagrin. But Giulia’s not a lovestruck innocent: she quickly begins consolidating her power by befriending the Pope’s daughter, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger). Lucrezia and Cesare’s relationship is already uncomfortably close for brother and sister; we’ll see if the Pope’s threats to marry her off put a strain on it.

The pilot suffers from the need to cram a great many plots in a mere two hours. Confrontations and reconciliations that probably took months in real history take seconds on screen. More than once, we see something akin to the following:

Pope Alexander VI: … and I’m making my mailman the Archbishop of Barcelona.
Cardinal Orsini: SIMONY! I denounce you!
Pope: Sounds like someone doesn’t want the awesome papal offices I’m selling.
Orsini: What? Me? Nonsense.
Pope: Good.
Orsini: Speaking of, why don’t you come to a party I’m throwing tomorrow?
Pope: I don’t know; you were just threatening me. Are you sure I won’t be poisoned?
Orsini: Oh, come on. “Poison-free in ’93″, that’s my motto.
Pope: Well, I’m between mistresses at the moment, so I’m free.
Orsini: Excellent! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to swing by the pharmacy to pick up some, er, flavorless blood thinners. Back in a trice!

And so on.

This baldness aside, the series benefits from good cinematography and great performances. When we first see Alexander VI greet the citizens of Rome on the Vatican balcony, blessing the crowd with a dignified wave of his hand, the parallel to the recent coronation of Benedict XVI is striking. Every scene in the Church drips with rich robes, the luster of gold, and the dim lights that would evoke backroom politics in a later century. The Cardinals all look old and corrupt, barely capable of putting up a front for each others’ lies. The younger generation, embodied in the Borgia family, appear young and vibrant. Cesare is most frequently filmed in motion, his clerical robes swirling around his heels as he stalks down one corridor or another.

I still have high hopes for Game of Thrones, but it’s got a strong competitor to live up to.

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