UNTO DEATH! The pleasures of The Borgias include the scenery — and watching Jeremy Irons chew it.
The second season of The Borgias (Sunday at 9 pm, Showtime) enters a crowded Sunday night field: HBO's Game of Thrones, AMC's Mad Men, even AMC's much discredited The Killing. But as historical dramas go, The Borgias' real competition is with Showtime's own entry of a few seasons back, The Tudors.
The reign of Henry the VIII is just about fool-proof, and never tires in the re-telling. It's a kind of Passion play with a rich cast of secondary characters — Wolsey, Cromwell, Thomas More. All of these court intrigues become subsumed in the Passion of Anne Boleyn, as we anticipate her not-uncertain fate. The familiarity of the story only enhances the pleasure.
Not so ingrained is the story of the Renaissance Pope Alexander VI and the various fractious Italian states. (The "King of Naples"? Really?) So the creators of The Borgias (Neil Jordan is executive producer) can play fast and loose with history, but that's also a disadvantage. Where, exactly, is the story?
To catch you up: Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) has attained the papacy through cunning and subterfuge. He and his bastard children — the hot-blooded but noble Cesare (François Arnaud), the hot-blooded and scurrilous Juan (David Oakes), the nubile if not unintelligent Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), and the pubescent Joffre (Aidan Alexander), betrothed to Sancia of Naples (Emmanuelle Chriqui!). The estranged mommy (a courtesan!) is ensconced nearby. Meanwhile, Alexander's current mistress, Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek) flits in and out of the papal bedchamber.
A pope with a handful of "out" bastard children, cavorting openly with his mistress — what could be better for a historical soap? As Juan says at one point, "Lechery and debauchery are the very mark of nobility." There is, of course, moral outrage, in the person of Florence's Savonarola and, most important, Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore), who is determined to oust Alexander and return the Vatican to the "true Church," even at the expense of paving the way for King Charles VIII of France's invasion of the papal states.
So there's plenty of action in the bedroom, on the battlefield, and in the confessional (where one unlucky servant of the pope is stabbed through the confessional screen — and his eye — by his confessor). It doesn't matter that Charles's invasion of Italy didn't come off quite as depicted in the series (and he appears to have died at a much younger age than the appealingly froggy and droll Charles as played by Michel Muller). What really compels us is the opulently photographed silks, satins, and sex, the blood and gore, and the equally opulent dialogue and melodramatic turns of plot. Will Lucrezia escape the clutches of her evil husband, Giovanni Sforza (Ronan Vibert)? Will Cesare ever be reunited with Ursula Bonadeo, for whom he fights a deadly duel ("You will find a nunnery but you will never be free of me!")? Will Charles take Naples?
Well, consult Wiki for the last. With all its melodramatic intrigues, The Tudors was really about something, and it more or less explained the religious wars that raged for hundreds of years and, transmogrified, still rage. It was about power in its real, historical manifestation. It was about England. We knew the stakes. It's difficult to know what's at stake for Rodrigo Borgia other than the security of his own dynasty.