Urquhearts Take - Comparative Reviews

Comparative Reviews
Urquhearts take on other historical dramas (old and new)
vs The Borgias

Thy Family Will Be Done: The Borgias vs The Tudors . . .

Part 1: JeReMy Vs JRM

The King Is Dead, Long Live the Pope!

The relative success of “The Tudors” convinced Showtime that there were still a largely unfulfilled appetite for modern, provocative historical drama and that an international co-production business model was profitable and sustainable. In that sense, “The Borgias” owe their existence to “The Tudors” and we, the fans, are all grateful. But how does the former fare in comparison to the latter? That is what I hope to examine over 4 thematic comparative reviews, dealing with various aspects of both shows. First of all, to kill the suspense: I am Team Borgias. Not only do I like it more, I also consider it better than “The Tudors” in (almost) every way, though I dearly hope that doesn’t make my reviews any less interesting to read. Let me get on with the boring part: the numbers (and I don’t mean the ratings). If it is any indication, Metacritic gives Season 1 of “The Tudors” a rating of 64% (versus 66% for Season 1 of “The Borgias”) and Season 2 a rating of 68% (versus 81%, albeit by fewer critics, for Season 2 of “The Borgias”), while Seasons 3 and 4 are rated 75% and 63% respectively. Do I agree with those ratings? Not necessarily (I consider Season 2 of “The Tudors” its best) but I definitely agree with the critic that during an Emmy Awards Nominations discussion roundtable enquired about the chances of “The Borgias” only to receive this paraphrased answer: People mistake “The Borgias” for “The Tudors” (meaning that this is the reason why it doesn’t get nominated in any major categories)…

Off With His Head!

I was fascinated by Tudor history but not really knowledgeable about it, hence the ideal viewer for a show like “The Tudors”, because I wouldn’t be able to scrutinize the adaptation for any historical discrepancies, inaccuracies etc. I didn’t watch the show when it originally aired and used it instead to sate my need for historical drama during the gaps between Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Borgias”. I liked the show very much yet I didn’t love it. It couldn’t possibly compare to my golden standard for historical shows (HBO’s "Rome") or even Season 1 of “The Borgias”, which was substantially weaker and slower than Season 2, but that wasn’t really the reason I didn’t fully enjoy it. Hell, “Spartacus” (I’ve lost count of its subtitles, is it Gods of the Arena? Blood and Sand? Vengeance? Boobs and Sandals? Sand and Sperm?) can’t compare to any of the above yet I tremendously enjoy watching it (maybe there’s potential for a comparative review right there). Did “The Tudors” have high production values? Yes. An interesting, complex story? Yes. Action and Violence? Yes and Yes. Sex? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes (I am beginning to sound like an orgasm by this point). So did it lack something? Yes. Or rather, no. It should lack something: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. This isn’t a case of “Actor A is, generally speaking, better or more versatile than Actor B but both are phenomenal in their respective roles”. Irons if of course an acclaimed veteran and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is a promising star, but in my opinion the latter’s extremely unsuitable for the part he was given and that becomes especially evident as Rhys-Meyers is summoned to play the aged Henry in Season 4, which makes for an agonizing watch.

The Jim Gandolfini Situation

It’s actually funny how James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini has the physique that could have enabled him to play both Henry VIII and Rodrigo Borgia! The Showtime executives must have had many a discussion like these:

Male Executive#1: So, this new “Tudors” project, have they cast anyone yet?

Male Executive#2: Judging by Henry’s portraits, James Gandolfini could do him some justice.

Female Executive: Well, actually, young Henry was quite lean and sexy and athletic and…

Male Executive#1: You had me at sexy. How about we cast someone that people might actually want to see naked rather than avert their eyes?

(4 Years Later)

Male Executive#1: So, this new “Borgias” project, have they cast anyone yet?

Male Executive#2: Judging by Pope Alexander’s portraits, James Gandolfini could do him some justice.

Male Executive#1: Are you secretly moonlighting as Gandolfini’s agent?

Male Executive#2: Well, we’ve had the sexy star for 4 years now and we need something else. What about Jeremy Irons? Who finds him sexy, am I right?

Female Executive: Who doesn’t?

Joking aside, it is no wonder that “The Borgias” is according to Showtime president, David Nevins, more male-oriented, given that its star’s sex appeal was only a tertiary consideration in Irons’ casting. There’s always an upside to casting someone iconoclastic in a historical adaptation and both Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Jeremy Irons avail their respective shows of a great benefit: they are both very original choices, difficult to repeat. But while Irons effortlessly anchors “The Borgias” and compliments the secondary cast, who are collectively much lesser known than the “The Tudors” cast, Rhys-Meyers often feels lackluster compared to his stellar co-cast-members. Sam Neill, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy (these days known as Downton Abbey’s deceased shrew Vera Bates), Nick Dunning (soon to recur on Starz’s upcoming series “Da Vinci’s Demons” as the villainous Lupo Mercuri), James Frain, legends Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow, Sarah Bolger, Henry Cavill (I am not a big fan of him but he has many great moments in the show, so many in fact that I could quite easily see him as the show’s alternative, equally handsome star) and many, many others all outshine him turning in exemplary performances, others admirably restrained and nuanced and others deliciously over-the-top and humorous. Meyers finds himself uncomfortably in the middle: he isn’t by any account restrained, has absolutely no sense of measure while he’s too self-serious to be flamboyant also.

Henrigo Tugias

The comparisons between Irons and Rhys-Meyers are extremely easy (and the outcome is in favor of Irons) especially because the two seem to play basically the same character: Henry VIII and Pope Alexander VI were vastly different historical personalities yet the shows dealing with each one of them are built around the same antihero-protagonist archetype. Both Henry and Rodrigo are flawed, powerful men that strive to be efficient leaders but are governed by their carnal desires and need for domination, even if these traits manifest themselves through diametrically different circumstances. But while Irons manages to make the petty, manipulative and often incompetent Rodrigo instantly likeable and delightfully wicked (he is easily humanized as he’s examined through the prism of his love for his children, I give you that), Rhys-Meyers rarely makes Henry more than a bratty, sex-crazy, screaming and utterly annoying kid and the most compelling part of the show is watching how his much more deserving advisors, opponents, wives, courtiers and allies (all played by superior actors) attempt to circumvent or screw him over. Rhys-Meyers has some rare brilliant and inspired moments throughout the span of the show (when disease spreads through London and paranoia overcomes Henry in Season 1, mourning his third wife in the company of the ancient court jester, played by the tremendous David Bradley, and a few others) but his ridiculous intensity and near-constant smirking, sneering, leering, growling and huffing don’t even come near to the show’s aim of portraying Henry as a mercurial figure (another trend in television when every hero has to be a brilliantly volatile genius) and are poor substitutes for characterization, inappropriate for the part and proof of an appalling lack of range. In the end, Rhys-Meyers’ strong suit is portraying Henry’s dangerously narcissistic side but as the seasons progress and his character becomes much more interesting, ruthless and cunning he’s at his very worst, especially as the Season 4 Henry when his fake raspy voice (a contrast to Iron’s silkily disquieting voice) makes him sound like Wheezy, the toy penguin with the malfunctioning squeaker in Toy Story 2, and the only direction he seems to offer himself is “Act Old”.

Part 2: The Greatest Stories Never Told (Accurately)

Good Men Go To Heaven, Evil Men Go To TV

Documented history has provided inspiration for fiction long before “I, Claudius” and its lasting allure can be summed up to this: reality is much nastier, sexier, fiercer and crueler than fiction. Of course, many will dispute whether documented history is history as it happened, the real history, or even if there can be such a thing as “real history” given how events are always viewed through one or several persons' comprehension of it. That is exactly the basic selling point of any historical adaptation: history seen by a new point-of-view, history as never told before. The key word is of course “adaptation”: for the sake of modern relativity or, if there is such a word, relatability, easier watching and enhanced entertainment, facts are altered and adapted, glossed over or emphasized to help viewers better understand and enjoy the product. “Rome”, “Pillars of the Earth”, “The Borgias” and “The Tudors” are all unique examples of this process and feature their fair share of differences.

What’s A Man Without Six Women? Two Women Without Their Heads?

Six wives that suffered or died or both, two daughters that became at the same time terrible and great queens, advisors whose name became synonymous with machinations, amorality and cynicism, a social-financial-religious conflict that changed the face of England, foreign wars and artistic and technological developments that echo throughout the ages: that is the story of Henry VIII and even so simplistically summed up to a few sentences, it is made evident that it is truly a sprawling, multi-layered and intriguing tale to tell. All historical dramas at the end deal with the very same core issue: how lightly or seriously death and life are treated in any given period, both enslaved and subject to the whim of any monarch, criminal, lord, knight, bishop, consul and soldier (or Pope!). Michael Hirst wrote every single one of the 38 episodes of “The Tudors” alone, a feat in its own right, and commendably managed, despite the occasional flaw or oversight, to keep track of dozens of characters, storylines and themes. Apart from the casting of Rhys-Meyers that is the show’s gravest error and doesn’t really do justice to the rest of the production, there’s nothing seriously wrong with Hirst’s adaptation. Yes, characters that appear to be significant in one season vanish in the next (Sir Anthony Knivert, the Duke of Norfolk, Francis Bryan, Archbishop Cranmer and many others) but the cast sometimes feels crowded as it is (the scenes revolving around Thomas Tallis seem like ads for a charity promoting the fight against sleepwalking), sex is a character unto itself, ever-present and imaginative but decidedly soft-core and never pushing the boundaries -though there's a lot of pushing involved- and politics are simplified and boiled down to something that the viewer is able to grasp and appreciate but one should keep in mind that those are just minor flaws since Hirst is successful at creating an interesting, labyrinthine world of fragile power balances, intrigue and debauchery, populated by colourful -but not too colourful regrettably- characters, while the scope of England as an empire and the various other European forces is deeply understood and effectively conveyed. The wives of Henry serve as the King’s own seasons and he changes as he moves on from the current to the next, while none of them has the screen-time or lasting effect of the presence of his most memorable one, Anne Boleyn, whose attitude nicely complimented the King’s volcanic temperament (Natalie Dormer was one of the two-three people in the cast Rhys-Meyers shared genuine chemistry with) especially in contrast to the tranquil Catherine of Aragon, the sole decent, unimpeachable female in the series whose internal conflict, plight and dilemmas don’t become boring despite the lack of soapy shenanigans. Hirst, thankfully, makes no moral judgments and the show merely provides the facts (even the fabricated ones) without telling you what to think of them (which is always a good thing if you ask me). In fact, the most ominous and challenging psychological questions are asked in the most casual and unassuming manner and the show’s atmosphere is perpetually quiet, dark and gloomy, even when music is playing or there are outdoors activities. Here lies the show’s ultimate fault: it’s too serious. The characters seem to possess no sense of irony, the delightfully baroque goings-on are treated in a straightforward manner and even though the show pops out of the screen visually, I would have appreciated some lighter action and less literal dialogue and chatty scenes that feel over-long, tedious and repetitive. Many of those problems are absent to a certain extent in Season 2 (the show’s very best, in my opinion) which makes some attempts at black, unrelenting humour (I loved the casting of Peter O’Toole and John Kavanaugh as the dry Vatican schemers) while fictional embellishments are mostly successful and serve the purpose of emphasizing suspense and providing more thrills (which can’t be said about later seasons - Why does every useless fictional character have to be called Ursula?).


We may never know why at the end Michael Hirst and Neil Jordan didn’t collaborate on “The Borgias” as initially reported (maybe Hirst wanted to cast Robert Pattinson as Pope Alexander VI!) but the filmmaker’s credentials were more than enough to guarantee what would be in the very least an above average series. Indeed, when Season 1 aired it became obvious that this was a good series, not a great one but still one worthy of attention and acclaim. The show was impressively filmic, immaculately acted, tastefully and refreshingly evading soapy melodrama (even when it shouldn’t, for entertainment’s sake) and, above all, successful at introducing characters whose despicable acts didn’t stop the audience from instantly liking them, even -if possible- relating to them to a certain extent. Jordan for years intended to adapt the Borgia tale for cinema and he didn’t seem to take full advantage of the benefit of having ample time to tell that same story: every episode clocked in around 45-55 minutes even though cable television doesn’t have a time restriction (by contrast, shows like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” regularly offer episodes that clock in 55-65 minutes), writing was characterized by trepidation when it came to telling an intricately complex story (the Italian feuds could make the mob hierarchy structure in “The Sopranos” or the noble clans fighting in “Game of Thrones” seem simple by comparison), characters (Adriana de Mila, I won’t stop complaining for you!) were eliminated or combined or their fate altered to allow for easier viewing while others were invented (Good riddance to you, Ursula, Queen of Boredom, and the brain-dead Pallavicini brothers!) to fulfill roles inspired by actual personalities but entirely expendable and at the mercy of plot expendiency as a result. Worst of all, the Season 1 finale left everything in a relatively good and happy place, able to function as a potential series finale in the event that the show wasn’t renewed, something that betrayed an utter lack of confidence in the force and attractions of the product. Well, the show was ultimately renewed and many choices in Season 1 were partially justified and made much more sense after watching Season 2. Adapting is understandably all about choices, namely what will stay and what will go. Jordan makes two basic choices in that regard: 1)Nobody should be able to impeach the show about relying too heavily on sex and violence (a right choice that makes those moments rare, unexpected and thus effective) and 2)the show is about the immediate Borgia family, thus making everything and everyone other than them disposable. While Jordan seems to have an endgame in mind and Seasons 1 and 2 nicely complement one another, working as separate pieces of a puzzle, enhancing each other’s themes without falling into repetition and taking the show one step further (Jordan has a tremendous sense of measure, almost to the point of holding back) Season 3 definitely needs to continue on this upward trajectory, adding more layers and complexity to the proceedings and experimenting with new things both visually and in terms of narrative. Season 2 availed the show of a sense of style, both aesthetically and storyline-wise: each episode seemed to have its own unique pace and pack of thrills, the show’s subtly black humour, tongue-in-cheek tone was even better attuned and still a big part of the show (especially the kind of wit that reminds one that this is the Renaissance, an extremely colourful period of time, a prevalent colour of which was the red of blood) and the storyline once again adhered and built up to a key event (Juan’s death, much like Season 1 was structured around the French Invasion) while the writing filled the blanks in between with a blend of rearranged or re-imagined series of real and fictional events, at the same time adding a very welcome comic-book, graphic novel-y, alternate-reality spin to the storyline.

It’s A Question Of Who Does Bad Things Better

What it always comes down to in modern television, dominated by antiheroes like Patty Hewes (Damages), Gregory House (House M.D.), Tony Soprano, Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire), Tom Kane (Boss) and countless others (in fact, I predict that in a decade a hero will be considered the unconventional thing since even current shows who have a basically good, heroic figure for a protagonist almost always mention that he’s haunted by his own demons -a phrase I am tired of seeing on posters, plot synopses and promotional material- or deeply self-destructive, depressed, crushed, prone to darkness, unwillingly dangerous etc) is what show manages to hook you by involving you and making you complicit to all the various and nefarious plots of its characters. And there “The Borgias” wins hands down, which is really a testament to the writing: even detestable characters like Juan Borgia, who spirals out of control and becomes a vortex of chaos and misery, is presented as an otherwise loyal -to the point of vice-, fun-loving, wickedly delightful being whose unforgivable erros in judgment can be blamws on a borderline childish innocense. It may sound extreme but despite their flaws, you get a sense that characters in “The Borgias” are full of consistent contradictions -forgive me the oxymoron- and evolve, right some mistakes, fall back into some others, come to realizations the easy or the hard way and despite the fact that they operate in a cutthroat world they still struggle to retain a sense of charity and protect their human core that then renders their ruthlessness or hypocrisy or redemption all the more shocking and enjoyable.

Part 3: The Hundred Castmembers' War

Horses For Coarses

The trickiest thing to get right when a period show’s conceived is casting the right people not only in the title role(s) (a show about the Tudors can’t afford to cast the wrong man to play Henry VIII - but that’s just me!) but also the supporting characters, those -often nameless, often obscure- men and women who existed in the shadow of the leaders of their times, whose life is usually summed up to a few sentences -at best- in a school book, and who, in the confines of a television show, help flesh out the motives of the main characters, shed some light on their often atrocious or reckless actions and provide them with love interests, friends and antagonists. An ensemble cast is not only the right thing to do if a show wants to dojustice to history-even partially, by providing a believably populated and complexly structured environment-, it’s also the clever move: the benefits of variety and avoiding the potentially monotonous focus on a single main character are both serviced by building a show around an ensemble cast (not to mention that the rule is that the secondary characters are the ones best situated to steal the spotlight and surprise, shock and entertain the audience). Casting the various ensemble roles is doubly significant given that secondary characters aren’t featured on-screen as often as the protagonist or given the heroic treatment of the main character(s) (even when their actions are downright bad to begin with a show always finds a way to mask it in all kinds of justifications), thus are much harder to humanize successfully, especially when most of them have little screen-time to elaborate on their belief system, their plight, their dilemmas, their conflicts and their questionable morals (in a historical show more often than not the ensemble includes lying, cheating, vulgar bastards). Obviously, a show like “The Tudors” or “The Borgias” can’t have such a vast, developed and thus successful ensemble as the “The Sopranos” one (personally, I don’t consider the “Game of Thrones” and “Borgia” ensembles equally successful, both shows seem to create different characters merely to serve exposition or basically the same purpose that another character already does) since they have limited time (10 episodes per season tops, while “The Sopranos” had 5 seasons of 13 episodes and 1 season of 21!) and a lot of history and plot to go through, as well as an endgame in mind dependent on how many seasons they are allowed to play it out on, unlike “The Sopranos” who took its sweet time chronicling the everyday lives of mobsters. For this review, speaking of ensembles I ‘ve decided to take not only the respective regular casts in consideration but also the recurring roles as well as a few influential guest-stars (such as Derek Jacobi as the first villain and casualty of “The Borgias” and Steven Waddington as the ill-fated Duke of Buckingham in “The Tudors”).

The Cast That Got The Cream

An ensemble’s success relies a lot on, first of all, writing and then casting: both shows did a terrific job casting almost every role. As to the question which show got the most high-profile actors, I don’t think anyone doubts that the answer to that is “The Tudors”: Sam Neill? Jeremy Northam? Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle-Kennedy, Sarah Bolger and Henry Cavill (all rendered household names nowadays due to their respective participations in “Game of Thrones”, “Downton Abbey”, “Once Upon a Time” and many films having a lot to do with muscles - and I don’t mean acting muscles)? Living legends Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow? James Frain? Henry Czerny? Jolie Richardson? Nick Dunning? Gabrielle Anwar? “The Borgias” has Jeremy Irons, Colm Feore, Joanne Whalley, Simon McBurney, Steven Berkoff, Gina McKee and a few others but can’t possibly match that. It’s quite possible -in fact, it’s almost certain given the evident talent- that after the show’s over many of its main cast-members will see their star launch, that is for those who aren’t already accomplished or at least prolific in the trade. Fame aside and generally speaking, actors in both shows seem to have their parts written for them and it’s usually hard to imagine someone else in their stead. There were many times I didn’t like this or that storyline on “The Tudors” but I never once doubted they had cast the right person to play it (plus, sex every two minutes helped alleviate the problem). That is definitely true for “The Borgias” too: I couldn’t be more grateful for Cesare, Juan and Lucrezia (Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo is the reason I started watching the show so that wasn’t a question ever), Vanozza, Della Rovere or Micheletto (more on that when I eventually compare “The Borgias” to “Borgia”) and obviously I can’t complain about the casting of iconic roles such as Caterina Sforza or Niccolo Machiavelli with people who inhabit those roles effortlessly and completely, granting them all sorts of interesting shades (always taking advantage of the writing on “The Borgias” which seems to leave many things to the cast’s discretion). That being said, apart from Derek Jacobi (Claudius himself) and Steven Berkoff (who’s actually tackled Savonarola before) I would like to see some more classic British television stars in roles (having “I, Claudius”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “House of Cards” or “Yes Minister” on their CV wouldn’t hurt).

And The Secondary Shall Be Primary…

The real problem with ensembles ultimately is whether you get to see enough of each cast-member to enjoy their contribution (which sometimes "The Borgias" fail in) but not too much so that you feel that the lead roles are being overlooked or the fun traits of secondary characters (sassiness, obnoxiousness, wit and charm are common) start to become overpowering, they get over-exposed, over-explained and over-analyzed, which means that the audience’s appetite is suddenly over-sated (which is often the case with "The Tudors"). Having someone wrong playing Henry in “The Tudors” means that an audience will be more interested and thus more forgiving towards the ensemble around him. Even Hirst must have been somewhat aware of the fact since he chose to center many episodes on characters other than Henry such as Anne Boleyn or Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas Moore or Thomas Cromwell (and the show’s often at its best when they are the episode’s focus). In that sense it’s hard for the “The Borgias” ensemble to compete with the “The Tudors” one, as the latter is operating right at the narrative and emotional core of the production and the show’s deeply human, compelling, magnetizing moments come when the downfall and despair of Wolsey become brutally real or when Anne’s last hours are so silently agonizing, courtesy, ironically, of the King’s kindness who wanted to spare her the pain and bring her the best executioner available. On the other hand “The Borgias” basically has three characters: Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia. The ensemble around them is full of unique, colourful performers (perhaps they are even better suited for their roles than the ensemble members in “The Tudors”) but the problem is that apart from Irons, Arnaud and Grainger (and Oakes perhaps in Season 2) everyone else gets to have lighter, consistently pleasing stuff and little dramatic moments here and there (though, quite often, exceptionally strong or haunting moments) or gets to steal the scene once in a while, but generally speaking “The Borgias” has no time for its secondary characters (which is exactly why the show’s cast is so much smaller than “The Tudors” cast).

Three’s A Crowd? Tudor’s A Crowd!

Nevertheless, “The Tudors” suffers -and I don’t mean the occasional misstep (William Compton, you are lucky the “sweating sickness” got to you first!)- by a severe case of an overcrowded cast. Many worthy actors are criminally underutilized due to that (Max von Sydow felt like a mere, even more under-featured substitute for Peter O’Toole’s wicked, poisonous Pope) or reduced to exposition machines or plot devices, while some central characters stay undefined (and the actors’ interpretations add nothing to the lackluster writing), especially in the last two seasons (e.g. Max Brown as Edward Seymour). “The Borgias” on the other hand has a uniformly excellent cast (yes, even Ruta Gedmintas does her best with the abhorrent Ursula) and every actor has much to offer in the characterization department. In “The Borgias”, secondary characters are ever-present and offer much in terms of ambiance and atmosphere, without stealing the spotlight or aggressively claiming a more prominent position. “The Tudors” may have its most touching, heartbreaking moments when it devotes screen-time to its secondary characters -especially in comparison to its weak star- but “The Borgias” feels less formulaic and more natural. Much like the show itself, dramatic measure is really all the ensemble’s about and, obeying to the writing, their first priority is to try to ground their larger-than-life characters and do their best to accompany the three primary leads.

Part 4: Rome Wasn't Built In A Day. And Neither Was London...

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme A Budget

Not every show can get away with it like “I, Claudius” did. Of course, who needs an actual production when extremely interesting and malevolent people, portrayed by marvellous Brits, roam in paperboard apartments lit by inexplicable light sources and exchange insults, poison and advice, dressed in the cleanest period costumes ever (which were perhaps the best thing production-wise, I have to admit)? “I, Claudius” aside (I am a fan but I know many viewers who consider it overrated, outdated even) and generally speaking, a period drama needs an actual production to immerse the viewer in the era, to differentiate from the other shows that feature people dressed in modern suits, much faster-paced plot and topicality and compensate exactly for the lack of the above. By definition, a period drama, other than a powerful story, needs a proper depiction of period, i.e. a decent production. More often than not, period shows are nothing more than “pretty people in pretty dresses” (or “pretty people who get out of their pretty dresses and make out with other pretty people in pretty rooms”). More often than not, executives greenlight shows simply because they are going to have a high quality outlet for sex and violence, traditional ratings attractions. Sometimes a good production, elaborate costumes, impressive sets, breath-taking locales and so on, are all a period show is. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with either “The Tudors” or “The Borgias” but in a television landscape dominated by colossal productions such as “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” (the former much better than the latter in my opinion, but that’s another discussion) a high level production is a prerequisite.

Bodice Language

One of the most defining aspects of a period production -maybe the most defining- is the costume design, the one viewers most talk about, obsess about and often want to imitate (a period drama can leave many victims in its wake and fashion isn’t an exception). That needs to be said: Joan Bergin and Gabriella Pescucci are both excellent costume designers and their work is ground-breaking and innovative. I consider Pescucci’s costumes in “The Borgias” pure excellence and proof that television can outshine cinema, both in terms of sheer size and incomparable quality. Bergin’s work is also quite intriguing and the award-winning costumes in “The Tudors” are often deliberately larger-than-life, full of bold shapes, nice edges and interesting ideas and constitute perhaps the most stylized aspect of the production: they are ridiculously luxurious, maybe a tad too much for the eye to take, and bathe the characters in a light of glamour, elevating them to their mythical proportions, as if the production doesn’t really revolver around the real, human dimension of the Tudor dynasty but rather the fables and the public opinion of them. Costumes in “The Borgias” are decidedly more modest -but not any less sumptuous- and strive for authenticity: they are a blend of styles and fabrics that were around in Italy or Europe in gerenal during the Renaissance and the Borgia reign, so one might contest their accuracy, but their terrific detail and variety is a joy to behold. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone named the costumes as a top 5 reason to watch the show (My list goes like this: 1: Jeremy Irons 2. Intrigue 3. Jeremy Irons 4. Costumes 5. Jeremy Irons!).

Ready, Sets, Go!

Where “The Tudors” really excels at is realistically presenting the labyrinthine, palatial world of Henry and his courtiers and the settings of his kingdom’s various international affairs. Henry’s abode counts many different rooms, so superbly detailed and alternatively understated and regal that it’s actually hard to discern which are built sets and which are real places. The world of the show was constantly expanding from London to Northern England, to France, to the Vatican, to Portugal and so on and so forth. The “The Tudors” interiors share only a vaguely similar style and feel authentic and “flavored” while the apartments in “The Borgias” are designed in roughly the same color palette and look somewhat more boring and less detailed but more stylized and textured and one gets a great and palpable sense of the architecture, of how the rooms are interconnected and how one leads to the others, almost like rooms of the same crypt. “The Tudors” also makes far better use of its Ireland exteriors, though VFX enhancement was still rough back then (the show premiered in 2005 after all) and extremely inferior to “The Borgias” in that regard, yet the latter’s exteriors are not as varied, rich or convincing, the Hungarian countryside feels awfully generic and the central set pieces (Saint Peter’s Square and Florence, so far) are imaginative but lack authenticity, size, detail and depth.

Eye For An Eye (Of The Beholder)

In a lavish, epic production cinematography is ultimately what ties everything together and determines the show’s visual code, style and atmosphere: lighting is half of what a cinematographer does and can make bad costumes and bad sets look good and good costumes and good sets feel formulaic, fake, tiresome or cheap, bringing the viewer entirely out of the experience and making the product unattractive to the eye. Osama Rawi’s cinematography in “The Tudors” is magnificent, everything’s rich, colours are bold and images jump out of the screen and there is a distinct visual style (weird angles and focus) that elevates the often mediocre writing. Sarrosy of “The Borgias” on the other hand mainly goes for atmosphere. While he has his moments with the show's tastefully stylish violence, sex and intrigue, he can’t be said to be idiosyncratic or choose a stylized "Spartacus" way of dressing the narrative. He just makes every frame as perfect and as wide as he can, evoking paintings of the time, but overall his most precious contribution to the show’s aesthetics is that he covers everything in a golden mist, often accompanied and mixed with deep red and purple, and goes for a “The Godfather” palette, which makes the series really beautiful to look at, at times even jaw-dropping, while trying not to distract from the plot. While “The Tudors” has somewhat more natural light, which makes everything more grounded and believable, “The Borgias” immerses you in the story by having constantly present candle smoke and ominous shadows, almost as if you can smell the incense and the various treacherous goings-on.

Battle of the Borgia Projects: The Borgias vs Borgia . . .

Part 1: Two English people, a Northern Irishman, a French-Canadian, an American and a Russian-German Girl Walk Into a Tavern...

Battle of Battles

It may have proven enlightening and entertaining (both for me and I would hope for those reading my comparative reviews) to take “The Borgias” and view them in comparison to past period pieces such as “The Tudors” or past Borgia tale adaptations like “Los Borgia” and BBC’s 1981 miniseries “The Borgias”, but what all these reviews have really built up to is this moment, this final 4-part review, this ultimate battle between two current Borgias-themed shows on opposite sides of the pond: the two series feel like they were destined to compete not only due to their debuting and airing almost concurrently (Season 1 of “Borgia” premiered a few months after Season 1 of “The Borgias” had concluded but Season 2 finished its run a mere day after “The Borgias” had debuted the 2nd episode of its Season 3) but also due to having been created to feel as different as possible. The two shows shoot in neighboring countries (“The Borgias” in Hungary, “Borgia” mainly in the Czech Republic) and were developed almost simultaneously (Neil Jordan was trying to make a movie narrating the lives of the Borgias for 10 years and “Borgia” was greenlit roughly two months before Jeremy Irons was announced as the star of The Borgias”), while there was an effort by creators Jordan and Tom Fontana to merge the two projects that fell through. There are conflicting accounts of the reasons that happened, but creative differences definitely were part of the decision: the shows feel like whenever there are two options from which to choose in developing their style, prose and storyline they just go for the opposite one. As always, first to enter the ring are Jeremy Irons, Francois Arnaud and Holliday Grainger to confront their equivalents John Doman, Mark Ryder and Isolda Dychauk. May the battle of the Borgias begin!

Hillbilly Pope

I could argue that John Doman, the Rodrigo of Tom Fontana’s “Borgia”, is a C-class American actor -in terms of fame- but let’s for the sake of conversation take for granted that he is merely a B-class actor and there’s still no denying that Jeremy Irons is an A-class actor. Yes, fame has nothing to do with talent but to take an otherwise reliable character actor like Doman and grant him a demanding lead role doesn’t immediately make him comparable to Irons. I became acquainted with Doman when he recurred in Season 2 of “Damages” (one of my favourite shows and definitely a much better written one than “Borgia”, or “The Borgias” for that matter) and even there, where he had ample chance to shine while others were burdened with the heavy lifting, he didn’t manage to make an impression (a visit to any “Damages” board will convince you). Irons, on the other hand, isn’t perfect himself, neither liked by all: his acting style, especially his body language and his deep voice are so idiosyncratic and unique that you either love him or hate him. Additionally, one could argue that his physique looks nothing like the real Rodrigo Borgia’s but his tobacco-coloured skin and his yellow teeth (at last, teeth that look like they belong to the Renaissance and not a Colgate commercial - that’s a complaint for you, “The Tudors” and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers!) contribute so much to his grotesque, often vampiric presence that he’s instantly eye-catching. With that in mind, even if one can’t stand Irons and I am sure there are such people, Doman is by comparison sadly average in every possible respect: his looks are okay, his voice is colourless and monotonous, he feels ill-at-ease and awkward in his long billowing robes and in handling his labyrinthine, often theatrical dialogue and his only advantage is a set of piercing blue eyes (which are still less piercing than one would fathom). If you can get past the fact that he’s American (I found no problem with that, the premise of having an ocean of several dozens of different accents is problematic in its own right) and stop wondering why in heaven would Fontana cast an actor so unsuitable for such a role due to his being completely unfamiliar with the mechanisms and prose of a period drama, Doman is more successful as a satire, a parody of the cold, greedy Texas oilman CEO moonlighting as a Renaissance Catholic cardinal and given the very meaty part Fontana’s given him (which was in Season 1 of “Borgia” much more challenging material than Irons’ role in Season 1 of “The Borgias”) he fails to convey the character’s duality and controversies evident in his ruthlessness and warmth, his ignorance and his intelligence, his seriousness and his humour, his faith and his ambition, all of which Irons excels at.

Irish Psycho

Where the competition starts getting clearer is definitely in the case of the two Cesares. Whether or not you find Doman as bland as I did, still viewers may be turned off by Irons’ being so over-the-top and flamboyantly evil in the role of Rodrigo, but comparing Francois Arnaud to Mark Ryder is a much more straight battle. To kill the suspense: barring Sergio Peris Mencheta of “Los Borgia”, Arnaud may well prove to be the definitive Cesare (should “The Borgias” be allowed to properly finish their storyline with some form of Season 4). The only thing Mark Ryder has going for him is unbridled passion and there are moments when that is properly exhibited and moments when I was certain he would self-combust or start writhing in a fit of epilepsy. Ryder’s physique may not be exactly what one imagined for Cesare, still his mellifluous voice, his alabaster skin and his seemingly innocent wide eyes compose an aptly serene and Renaissance-like exterior that conceals unspeakable depths of megalomania and violence but the way Ryder emphasizes his every line (often accompanied by spitting and trembling) and lacks every sense of measure, condemn him to be constantly irritating and rarely menacing. To praise Arnaud would be boring since everyone seems to agree that he’s a scene-stealer and one of the most accomplished cast-members of “The Borgias” despite his young age. I’ll only say that: Arnaud displays acting maturity beyond his years, menace beyond his build and charm beyond his (already good) looks. On the other hand, Season 2 of “Borgia” that sees Cesare grow as a character and Ryder grow in the part was no significant improvement: Ryder was somewhat more measured, still there’s a hyperbole and phoniness to his performance that is absent even from the mediocre performance of his on-screen father (Doman in the role of Rodrigo) and the much more nuanced and interesting performance of his on-screen sister (Isolda Dychauk coming up next).

Russian Renaissance

The sole remarkable performer in the lead trio of “Borgia” is Isolda Dychauk as Lucrezia: not only possessed with the perfect physique to play the role but also with the talent, it’s only a shame her part in Season 1 was largely annoying and insubstantial (despite her significant role in one or two key twists I didn’t see coming that altered the very core of what the Borgia tale is), that of an eternally conflicted brat which often made the show seem like a Renaissance teenager drama. Season 2 of “Borgia” sees Lucrezia become much more powerful and manipulative, yet retaining her grace, uncompromising sense of justice and humanity and Dychauk is the only one of the main trio to rise to the occasion (while Season 2 had a much more disparate, less focused and, generally speaking, worse narrative than Season 1, the parts of Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia still gave the actors multiple opportunities to shine, something only Dychauk accomplished). That being said, Holliday Grainger is still on another level: while the battle of Lucrezias will prove, I am sure, the most uncertain in terms of a winner, there’s no doubt in my mind that Grainger is much fiercer yet more likeable, much more underhanded yet much more easily relatable and much closer to the Lucrezia of myth than the actual one yet just as believable in the role.

Part 2: Quality Versus Quantity

There are Versions and Perversions

While the trio of Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia is indispensable to any self-respecting Borgia adaptation (there are some thematic movies that focus either on Cesare or Lucrezia, where Pope Alexander VI is but a cameo or worse, altogether absent, but these are the exception), it’s how each version chooses to treat the cast of secondary roles in the Borgia fable that sets its tone and serves as a declaration of intention. In that respect, “Borgia” and “The Borgias” couldn’t have been more different: “The Borgias” chooses to include the bare essentials in terms of historical characters, the core Borgia clan, the most famous and persistent of their enemies and a few European monarchs whose role in the politics of the era is either altered to suit the needs of the plot or outright fabricated, while “Borgia” strives to create as many characters to inhabit its extensive (and ever-expansive) universe as possible, naming them after thoroughly researched actual figures, obscured in most history books in the shadow of the giants of the time, but never once hesitating, much like “The Borgias”, to fictionalize their part as the show’s writers deem fit. That’s something I’ll elaborate on about in Part 3, when I examine the two shows’ writing, but it becomes readily apparent, after watching even a single episode of “Borgia”, that the show’s myriad of characters need not only be compared to their equivalents in “The Borgias” but also to certain real or fictional characters that fulfill a similar function in terms of the latter’s narrative.

Who Will Care for the Juans and Giulias of this World?

Being mostly shunned in “Los Borgia” and BBC’s “The Borgias” (he died midway through the former and in the third episode of the latter), both “Borgia” and “The Borgias” opt to heavily feature Juan, not only sensing his importance in each series’ endgame but also the character’s potential in the hands of his magnificent performers, Stanley Weber and David Oakes respectively. Both young actors seem to be ideally and singularly talented in creating such an absolutely deviant and devious character that is however not without redeeming qualities or without the ability to seduce viewers despite -or quite possibly, thanks to- his utter despicability. Both Juans are written as if the characters carry a child’s soul with adulthood’s potent weaponry, both characters seem to be characterized by a juvenile innocence that appropriately complements a grown-up’s various desires, designs, faults and deficiencies. Out of the two, Oakes’ Juan is definitely the most pampered one, the one that best conveys the sense of being a privileged kid aware and taking advantage of his father’s special, unwavering fondness and at the same time, a kid totally oblivious of the price that fondness comes at and the doom that lavish, undivided affection has spelled for him. Oakes’ Juan is the textbook incapable son being handed the keys to his father’s kingdom and Oakes knows how to act the fool in an intelligent manner but maybe the character’s flamboyance and buffoonery is the greatest weakness of his performance also: Weber’s Juan, without ever feeling too intelligent or less of a slave to his lust, communicates a special kind of menace and danger, that’s much more terrifying. Fontana’s Juan is crafted to be ten times more cunning than Jordan’s (and it definitely helps that Mark Ryder’s Cesare is ridiculously psychotic and conflicted and not nearly as silently effective or broodingly dark as Francois Arnaud’s, so Weber’s Juan feels, instantly, much abler to cope by comparison, even if the show still has him being the lesser brother) and twice as disastrously volatile. The greatest disadvantage in Weber’s performance is his native French accent which may render some of his lines unintelligible but his sly, naughty eyes more than make up for it, like a kid hidden in a grownup’s attire or as if Juan’s possessed by an unholy spirit. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you liked Weber or Oakes better (personally, I prefer Weber, but only marginally – he’s less likeable than Oakes’ but much more deliciously destructive) both performances are artful and Weber has the more consistently written part while Oakes is given a few stellar scenes that help showcase his glorious, outstanding talents. Another prominent presence in the Borgia court that’s often neglected (she appeared but only briefly in “Los Borgia” and BBC’s “The Borgias”) is the Pope’s primary lover, Giulia Farnese. Most Borgia adaptations include the “the Pope has a young mistress” fuss but none of them really cares to develop her further and that is a great pity because both “Borgia” and “The Borgias” try to mine (the former more than the latter) this historical romance for drama. I am stating it outright: Marta Gastini as Giulia in “Borgia” is the best piece of Fontana’s casting. She is mostly accurate in terms of the physique required for the role of “La Bella” but even though the role as written only barely resembles the actual woman, Gastini makes Giulia a soap diva, the “Atia of the Julii” kind of gorgeous schemer that tries to get the better of everyone, even those closest to her. The character, despite the talented young thesp’s efforts, lacks soul, even if Giulia sheds some tears here and there, but this is the rare occasion that it simply doesn’t matter: Giulia is enormously entertaining and you want her to succeed even at the expense of other main characters, such as Lucrezia Borgia, who doesn’t have the audacity to fully embrace her ambitions and as a result comes off as a hypocrite. Giulia’s juicy antics were somewhat diminished in Season 2 and the character lost some of her bite as a result of the writing trying to humanize her a bit more but Gastini remained one of the most successful assets of “Borgia”. Lotte Verbeek in the same role in “The Borgias” is a different case: Jordan chooses to introduce her into the second episode of Season 1, in order to draw special attention to her role after he’s done acquainting us to the other main characters, but never fulfils the potential of such a promising debut. She’s physically nothing like the actual Giulia, except that she’s breathtakingly beautiful in her own right, but, oddly for Jordan and “The Borgias”, the role is written to be much more like I imagine the real woman to have been: standing firmly in the background. Jordan and Verbeek’s Giulia has a dark and rather unclear backstory (the only thing largely fictionalized and vastly different from the historical Giulia) and is, consequently, much more enigmatic, distant, ethereal and regal than Gastini’s Giulia. Many things about her are implied rather than stated and the figure is concealed in the shadows: she feigns weakness as a means of survival, she doesn’t openly scheme for or against anyone (other than some unlucky cardinals), she only advises Rodrigo and occasionally Lucrezia (and rather well, at that) and helps them whenever she’s asked as a means of helping herself. Even though she lacks warmth, oddly she doesn’t lack soul: she can appear insecure whenever she knows she’s losing the Pope’s passion once again (though she’s slowly starting to get over that with time) and you can see that she’s hurting the very same moment she decides to bite the bullet and use underhanded measures to win her way back to his bed. She’s a good alternative mother figure to Lucrezia, a polite ally to Vanozza and a vicious enemy to Vatican corruption, colorful duties that the show grants her to enable her to retain the audience’s interest. Moreover, she’s far less petty than Gastini’s Giulia, which means she’s less annoying, and twice as imperious, which means she can appear equally malevolent. Were Verbeek allowed to steal screen-time from Irons, Arnaud and Grainger, her Giulia would have been beyond comparison to Gastini’s but unfortunately “The Borgias” is merely amused at the thought of a Pope’s mistress and never genuinely interested in her (she appears in most episodes but has more than a few lines in roughly every second episode), so the character is never really allowed to click with the audience and, as a result, even Verbeek’s considerable efforts to breathe life into something barely more substantial than a side-note aren’t enough.

Friends and Enemies, Kings and Frenemies

The other essential regular or semi-regular roles are far more similar in both shows: firstly, Assumpta Serna and Joanne Whalley, two wonderful actresses with distinct styles provide us with two lovely and endlessly likeable Vanozzas, the former as a more earthy, matronly version that doesn’t lack wit, the latter a much more aristocratic and attractive version, kinda playing with the “veteran femme fatale” trope (which is apt, given that the character’s supposed to have been a highly successful courtesan). Diarmuid Noyes is perhaps my favourite secondary character in “Borgia” as the eternally lovable yet capable of duplicity and power-plays Alessandro Farnese (I am expecting a lot from Cyron Melville holding the same role in “The Borgias”). Dejan Cukic offers an intense and cunning Della Rovere, lacking Colm Feore’s patrician haughtiness and perverse sense of morality while Charles McKay is a far smarmier Ascanio Sforza than Peter Sullivan’s, but one that lacks edge unfortunately, as well as the cardinal’s fabled felicity for survival and always positioning himself in the winner’s camp (inexplicably, Ascanio in “Borgia” is demoted and loses the Vice-Chancellor post late in Season 1), which Sullivan wisely underplays. Victor Shrefe’s Burchard is delightfully robotic and rigid but he gets repetitive and tiring soon (but maybe that’s the character’s purpose) and I am glad that “The Borgias” have chosen to only include the magnificent Simon McBurney’s Burchard in those episodes that he can play some kind of key role in the hour’s endgame. Miguel de Corella, the Borgias’ favorite assassin is also present in “Borgia”, played by an intriguing figure that never truly fulfils his potential and his mere ominous presence means nothing more than a few shivers for some members of the cast as well as the audience (and those are more due to the character’s styling rather than the actor’s achievement). Sean Harris’ Micheletto on the other hand isn’t only the Borgias’ favorite, he is also the audience’s, adding layers upon layers to someone who looks on the surface to be nothing more than a heartless sword-for-hire, a mere façade concealing a stoic but deeply hurt, tormented existence. Most of the other recurring/guest roles fare much more poorly in “Borgia”, mainly due to their having been cast with inferior to abysmal actors or with capable ones that are apparently handling their lines in English in an awkward manner: the thesps playing prince Alfonso of Naples and Giovanni Sforza are practically flavorless, especially in comparison to their delightfully obnoxious homologues in “The Borgias” (though, at least the latter actor is entertainingly whiny). Udo Kier (perhaps the biggest name in guest casting in Season 1 of “Borgia”) as Innocent VIII is appropriately grotesque in physique but struggles with his few lines and adds absolutely nothing to the characterization of the dying Pope that Michael Poole didn’t in his single scene in “The Borgias” (despite the fact that the former appears in many more scenes and is credited in 3 episodes). Simon Larvaron as King Charles VIII of France is artfully expressive and historically accurate in appearance but doesn’t bring the sheer game-changing force and genuine humour that Michel Muller brought to the back half of Season 1 of “The Borgias”. Sancia is equally one-dimensional but fun in “Borgia” too, yett not as enjoyably over-the-top lascivious and irreverent as Emmanuelle Chriqui in the respective role. Still, there are some shiny exceptions to this rule: Iain Glen as the supernaturally resilient and determined Girolamo Savonarola is breath-taking, perhaps the best performance in the entire show, and had he appeared in more than two episodes he could have been comparable to Steven Berkoff on “The Borgias”. Valentina Cervi as Caterina Sforza is potent as well and she resembles my mental image of the real woman much more closely but she still is no match for the depth and menace Gina McKee’s performance has graced the character with. Thibaut Evrard is a much more grounded and serious Machiavelli but Julian Bleach is too deliciously calculating and politically savvy to discard and let us not forget his gargoyle-like facial features. Finally, “Borgia” has the benefit of an Alfonso of Aragon, played by Alejandro Albarracin, that may not exactly be as likeable as Sebastian de Souza but is, thankfully, far from boring and meek and is set up as a force-to-be-reckoned-with for Cesare in Season 3.

Adriana, I Still Miss You!

There’s another vast group of characters in “Borgia” that add a sense of richness and depth to the storylines, despite the fact that they aren’t always played by very good actors or that they are not really conceived as multi-dimensional characters but rather glorified extras. Most of these history-based roles may not exist per se in “The Borgias” but their functions are either served by other main or secondary characters or they are the inspiration for some of the show’s customary fictionalizing which of course extends to the creation of some roles. While Adriana de Mila is nonexistent in “The Borgias” her role is shouldered partially by both Vanozza and by Giulia which gives them more to do but this is the one character I believe would have made a difference, especially in the sparsely plotted Season 1 by perplexing its rather plain dynamics. Andrea Sawatzki is excellently buttoned-up and sanctimonious as Adriana, but it’s soon proven that the show doesn’t really know what to do with her and writes her off midway through Season 1 (she returns for a couple of scenes in a Season 2 episode). The exceptionally talented and measured Art Malik portrays Gacet, Rodrigo’s secretary/childhood confidante, who is a little too perfect and wise for my tastes but is still a nice figure to have Rodrigo interact with (oddly, Malik and Doman share a reasonable amount of chemistry, which is more than what can be said about the rest of the cast). The role of Rodrigo’s co-conspirators are most commonly filled in “The Borgias” by Cesare and Juan and, generally speaking, by family (the theme of suspicion for outsiders is prevalent), rarely even by Vanozza, Giulia Farnese and Ascanio Sforza. The reliable and mild-mannered Paul Brennen as Agapito Geraldini is essentially Cesare Borgia’s manservant, the role being played with much more heft in “The Borgias” courtesy of Sean Harris’ Micheletto. Lastly, the various cardinals in “Borgia” are played with mixed results by a group of mostly Central and Eastern European actors, Brit Michael Fitzgerald lending relentless gusto to his Cardinal Carafa, the most memorable one among them, while “The Borgias” relies on some go-to characters to emphasize the curatorial politics and corruption, namely revered veteran Bosco Hogan’s Cardinal Piccolomini and legendary bilingual character actor Vernon Dobtcheff’s Cardinal Versucci (who has a rather surprising arc in seasons 2 and 3).

Part 3: Write or Wrong

Irish Catholicism Versus Italian Catholicism

To get the tiniest idea of how much different writing in “Borgia” and “The Borgias” actually is, one needn’t look any further than the careers of their respective creators: Tom Fontana and Neil Jordan come from diametrically different backgrounds and have had track records that don’t resemble one another’s not even a little. Fontana comes from television, Jordan from cinema, Fontana’s known for his experience in constructing complex, extraordinary drama stemming from some of the darkest recesses of human society and Jordan writes (and often directs) lyrical, nuanced and heightened drama in a singularly idiosyncratic, almost psychedelic fashion. The fact that they were both attracted by the adventures of the Borgia family doesn’t really mean anything: if one were to watch the two shows without sound, so as to avoid hearing the name Borgia and instantly recognizing that they revolve around the same family, one would think they are about totally different people and stories. Fontana saw in the Borgia history powerful and shocking drama that was ripe to be mined, drama that wasn’t in much need for adaptation and embellishment (though, he definitely indulged in both), while the intricate politics of the era were so interestingly cutthroat he chose to uphold their eye-opening truth religiously. Jordan on the other hand seems to have been more fascinated by the place of the Borgias in Europe’s past and in Christian tradition, as well as their status as a dark fable according to public opinion. He’s very well-read on the subject and that is apparent in his tendency to be inspired by little-known facts or rumours about the Borgia clan or their most famous contemporaries and use his imagination to adapt and include them in his tale (I could argue that there isn’t a single thing established or speculated about the family, he doesn’t find a big or small way to allude to). Most of all, Jordan’s enamored with Christian imagery and symbolism and “The Borgias” seemed like the ideal project to showcase them: timelessly generic themes of power and corruption are enhanced by religious and sexual undertones and injected with interminable wit and astonishing eruditeness. Jordan will have, by the end of Season 3, personally written roughly 70% of the show (he’s credited as the writer of 20 out of 29 episodes) while Fontana writes only a handful of the episodes of “Borgia” but is a hands-on showrunner/executive-producer and contributor of the general structure of each season, as well as episode-specific story ideas. Both men have delegated writing duties to others: David Leland, a Jordan collaborator and, like him, a figure of cinema, wrote the second half of Season 2 (but for the finale) and acted as co-showrunner while Guy Burt, hailing from British television, crafts some of the best episodes of the show (the Season 2 finale and 4 episodes in Season 3 are his) and Fontana, on the other hand, trusts a group of fresh and experienced writers from Europe and the U.S. to write the majority of the two seasons of “Borgia”, so it is easily made clear that every single one of the afore-mentioned writers in both shows add their style and preferences to the writing but all of them strictly adhere to the show’s prose and narrative core as dictated by Jordan and Fontana.

Plots and Plotz

What needs to be said about Fontana and his team’s writing in “Borgia” is that plotting each hour is their greatest strength and that is thanks, first and foremost, to Fontana’s profound understanding of late 15th century European politics and, second, his willingness to make that understanding come off in “Borgia”. It’s not that Jordan isn’t well-read on the subject, he merely opts for more generic themes and less complex, more lyrical storylines, showcasing gloriously appealing or spectacularly appaling elements of late Medieval/early Renaissance Europe, often even outside their historical context. Fontana, on the other hand, at the risk of alienating the viewer by overcomplicating the plot or by serving him extremely clumsy exposition, takes care to explain the real or probable cause of every single political gambit in his storylines, the majority of them inspired by actual events, and is equally obsessed with the politics of the era as he is with the show’s characters. The way he clarifies Rome, Naples, France, Spain and Milan’s role in the storyline and the way he tackles the various factions fighting for each of these major players is astonishing and elevates the stakes for each story, as well as making it much more believably complicated as there are several dozen people and conflicting interests involved. Whereas Jordan adapts the Borgia story in its entirety, going to great lengths to provide variety, symmetry, cinematic expedience and avoidance of repetition, Fontana’s deep interest lies in the specifics of the Borgia reign: he doesn’t care whether there have to be numberless scenes narrating just another meeting of Pope Alexander VI with the College of Cardinals or if history dictates that a new character has to be introduced with each new episode instead of creating a single role combining characteristics of several different historical figures in an attempt to serve the same function in terms of the storyline. He isn’t above fictionalizing though, much like Jordan: whenever a clear answer can’t be easily found on a subject pertaining to the Borgia papacy or the European political status quo in general, Fontana will devise the most extreme one, the one that is more likely to be viewed as a crazy twist rather than a credible resolution of a plot-thread. Jordan, being of the same mind, treats historical accuracy as a secondary goal to entertainment: the most earth-shattering events are, even loosely, based on the lives of the Borgia clan and practically every vast alteration to history serves a narrative purpose but if one were to read Borgia history he would find it difficult to count the number of changes made by the writer, much less stomach them. Jordan, admirably, has created a version of the Borgia lore that is very vivid and imaginative, albeit mostly inaccurate, but whoever thinks that he has merely blackened the reputation of the family has never watched the show: the Borgias in “The Borgias” are horribly flawed but not more than their contemporaries, they are merely much more adept at playing power games and Jordan stays true to the spirit of their story in the sense that every single controversy hinted or stated in history is still there in some form or another. The greatest strength of Jordan’s series though is elsewhere: while Fontana races to hint at or mention every single detail known about the ambitious family and its adventures, Jordan lets the show’s characters breathe, behave realistically, relax, fail, take their time, triumph, fail again and prove human in every possible way. It’s not that Fontana’s show isn’t about humanly flawed people, it’s just that every single one of their flaws, every single one of their contradictions and every single one of their operatic clashes conveniently serves the plot. Fontana, reasonably, does the essential thing for a television series: he needs to make sure that every episode is full of action and drama, even if they have to be artificially or inorganically woven into the narrative tapestry. Jordan, never betraying his cinematic roots, on the other hand alternates, however indiscernibly, between character-driven and plot-driven episodes as if he doesn’t have roughly 20 years of history to go through: for some parts to work some other parts have to be sacrificed (just like in a movie) and many things that characterized the beginning of “The Borgias”, that initially felt like a much too leisurely-paced show, started making sense only when the show hit its stride, among other things thanks to that introduction and building of tension.

Character-driven and Character-drivel

Characterization is where Fontana’s mainly plot-centric approach starts to falter: his characters are more than satisfactorily defined and despite the really crowded cast, all of the main characters have meaty parts to sink their teeth into (some successfully, others not so much) but these characters don’t feel compatible. Partly due to the writing and partly due to the acting, Fontana’s characters don’t quite mix: the unbreakable family bond isn’t there and every relationship and interaction in the show seems to lack flavor and proper foundation. While Fontana’s Rodrigo, Cesare, Lucrezia, Giulia, Juan and others all make perfect sense on paper and act as if they are the center of their world and the stars of their own show (often I’ve wondered why the show is called “Borgia: Faith and Fear” and not “Farnese: Froth and Frown”) their on-screen meetings, especially the ones that are supposed to be amicable, are distant and emotionless: enormous developments happen out-of-the-blue (Cesare and Lucrezia’s incest, one of the most laughably reenacted parts in “Borgia”) and most secondary or tertiary characters seem to pop up randomly with their background and goal immediately stated so as to not bewilder the viewer. I can understand these side characters being little more than mere plot devices (even if they are less so in “The Borgias”) but Fontana often commits the same mistake with the regular ones: to suit and advance the needs of the plot and quench the audience’s thirst for constant intrigue, Fontana’s writing turns the characters into endlessly inventive, eternally intelligent, all-knowing manipulators, ones that have contingencies in place for every possible eventuation, as well as a masterplan in mind for their destiny, a masterplan they’ll inexplicably pause to elaborate on for the audience’s sake. As a consequence, Fontana’s show is even soapier than “The Borgias” and even if it proves fully fun for the most part, there’s only so much scheming you can take: in short, Fontana's show lacks the soul. Jordan, surprisingly, manages the impossible: even in such a relentlessly grim narration, his characters remain human, relatable and even, rarely, sweet. Characters in “The Borgias” are much more complex as a result of being much less wise and insightful. Fontana mistakes cunning for flawless strategy while Jordan knows that even clever characters can make foolish mistakes out of arrogance. Jordan’s characters are no less egomaniacs or power-hungry, it’s just that their nefarious plans often backfire or prove woefully short-sighted. It’s great fun watching Fontana’s impenetrable ciphers of a cast, all the consummate schemers, politicians, seducers and fighters, but it oddly feels much more appropriate watching the oxymoron of the grounded and at the same time flamboyantly over-the-top Borgias in “The Borgias”, that are much more obliviously self-absorbed and almost buffoonish plotters.

Homily and Speech

Finally, when it comes to crafting each show’s dialogues, the two creators follow similar paths: strictly adhering to one of the most easily recognizable period drama tropes, characters in both series sound like they became lost on their way to a Shakespearean festival. Jordan’s prose may lack the purposefulness, precision and vitriolic sarcasm of scripts in HBO’s “Rome”, but his show’s lyrically archaic, surprisingly laconic and paradoxically rhythmic “voice” really elevates the show above similar ones, mainly “The Tudors” that mostly lacked this kind of verbal variety and memorable quality. Jordan sprinkles the dialogue with subtle but irreverent and relentless wit, constant subtext and hard-to-miss innuendo, the combination of which is ultimately what Fontana’s dialogue lacks: whereas he declares that he will not merely repeat the same method of writing a period show and adds a few modern touches to how the characters speak sometimes, his prose is not only less artful or poetic than Jordan’s, it’s also mishandled by the cast. One can’t blame the writing for an actor’s awkward and clumsy delivery but to give such long and elaborate lines to someone that visibly struggles with them is ultimately a writer’s concern. On top of that, while Jordan’s apparent enthusiasm with contemporary literature and Christian lore is a ceaseless influence on his writing and the show’s dialogue often hints to these, it does so in a natural way while Fontana’s attempts to do the same thing come off as a pedantry or someone reading info from a tour guide. In the end, both shows more or less choose to sound the same -similar not only to one another but also to others in the genre- but this particular style of dialogue seems to become “The Borgias” a million times more than “Borgia”.

Part 4: Neighboring Productions

Similar Yet Different

And of course, two shows that come from creators of such different backgrounds and observe so very dissimilar production paradigms and are, generally speaking, so singularly unique in their conception couldn’t possibly be allowed to look, sound and feel the same. That being said, for two shows in their parallel trajectories, the productions still share some eerie similarities and seem to borrow from one another (intentionally or unintentionally). To be sure, what ultimately dictates how the two shows are to be made is that both of them have but finite budgets and so some level of digital mischief and manipulation as well as some reasonable amount of resourcefulness and inventiveness are all prerequisites and what, in the end, determines which show is the better-produced and better-looking one. It is important to remember this: while both shows are much better than some of their predecessors in the genre and while one may be bigger and better than the other in one particular area or another, these two stay strictly within the confines of their television format, even if they admirably try to push for a larger and more cinematic scope (sometimes successfully).

Fashion Polish

The first area that “The Borgias” always wins by a landslide is the costumes department: rather than extolling the virtues of Gabriella Pescucci’s creations yet again, I’ll merely say that Sergio Ballo is a very original and idiosyncratic costumer, whose highly imaginative work isn’t at all times in sync with the rest aspects of the production of “Borgia”. What I mean is that while Ballo’s costumes are interesting creations in their own right and can be said to be extremely distinctive, their lack of fine detail and subtlety and their being based on a more generic concept of Medieval/Renaissance fashion makes them a bad match for a production that seems to try to feel authentic and grounded. Ballo’s work also doesn’t seem to care for the cast’s silhouettes and what’s complimentary to the one that wears them and, as a consequence, costumes feel heavy, crude and cumbersome, even primitive, as if they are being assembled by someone who’s just learnt to weave and sew. Though costumes become progressively better and are much more refined by Season 2, they still greatly lack in elegance but that weakness could be said to be balanced in their, for lack of a more suitable word, impact: their being so very voluminous and so boldly colored makes them jump from the screen (especially in Season 2, color combinations that would seem odd as an idea match strikingly and create vividly memorable images). The extreme edge of Ballo’s costumes seem to successfully enhance and accentuate the over-the-top quality and rampant flamboyance of Fontana’s characters (that are, nonetheless, written as less larger-than-life and theatrical than Jordan’s ones), but that isn’t enough to make up for the lack of sumptuousness, when compared to Pescucci’s spectacular designs.

Hung(a)ry for Business

A department of production that makes for a much more interesting showdown for “Borgia” and “The Borgias” is the set design and the actual locations the shows choose to shoot in: while it is plainly apparent that “The Borgias” has spent a lot of money on its numberless sets (that the props department has dressed magnificently), “Borgia” isn’t to be lightly dismissed. Sets by Bernd Lepel and Stefano Ortolani in “Borgia” feel authentically down-to-earth and much more modest or “clean” than in “The Borgias”, while the two designers have managed to find the perfect balance of making sets that feel aged yet appropriately polished to play host to aristocrats and dignitaries. The main setting for many of the show’s most pivotal storylines and moments, the court in front of the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, is greatly textured and detailed but feels somewhat claustrophobic and if “The Borgias” made it look bigger -and possibly better- than what the actual location looked like back then, then “Borgia” makes it look even smaller and more dilapidated. The Florence exteriors though in “Borgia” are much better rendered than in “The Borgias”, achieving a more realistic and at the same time more impressive sense of size (height especially) and geography, as well as feeling less artificial and façade-y than the Florentine sets in “The Borgias” (which is to be expected given that the "Borgia" Season 2 Rome and Florence sets were constructed in the legendarily vast Cineccita Studios). The on-location shooting in the Czech Republic and Italy produces mixed results: while exteriors of real buildings feel, well, real (as opposed to the somewhat one-dimensional fronts of buildings in “The Borgias”), most of them either feel slightly out-of-place (the obviously Central-European-looking Czech Republic ones) or extremely and inappropriately old, which is the case with Italian locations: they have great depth and detail but they feel almost ancient and borderline uninhabitable and museum-y, as opposed to something a noble or royal family would erect to reside in (still, I applaud the show for trying to shoot in locations bathed in the authentic Italian sun – it’s something that “The Borgias” hasn’t so far bothered to do). More than anything, the only real disadvantages of shooting completely in a backlot, as is the case with “The Borgias”, is that even the exterior sets have to be recycled (yes, the show has to perform on a certain budget, still it could have rearranged its sets more efficiently and better disguised them, so as not to make parts of Milan, for example, look extremely similar to Florence or Rome – the Naples sets are much more successfully manipulated to provide for necessary scenery change) and that the Italian location shooting of “Borgia” avails the production of a lush visual palette that exponentially adds to the show’s atmosphere and shames the generic-looking-and-feeling Hungarian countryside, where “The Borgias” often shoots in, desperately trying to emulate Renaissance Italy. As for interiors, when “Borgia” is shooting in real locations in the Czech Republic it mostly fails, since the sets lack coherence and the appropriate flavor (they have a vague Central European feel, not a Mediterranean one) but when it goes to Italy, the show instantly achieves the right sense of time and place, the architecture is realistically complex and beautiful, even if it lacks the deliciously grim endless-crypt-like quality of indoors in “The Borgias”. The Barrandov Studios interiors in “Borgia” are satisfactorily detailed but feel much more modest and claustrophobic than those in “The Borgias” but what they lack in size they at least partly make up for in bold design: instead of going for the clichéd gold and crimson patterns “The Borgias” employs however successfully, “Borgia” uses greens, blues, purples and many other vibrant colours to convey opulence and luxury. Still, the “The Borgias” sets are exhaustively detailed and much more consistent in their splendor and I would place them considerably above the “Borgia” ones.

Sense of Lens

As I’ve often remarked, it’s the cinematographer’s job to define each show’s visual language and hide the production’s shortcomings or mistakenly emphasize them. Thankfully, both Ousama Rawi and Paul Sarossy/Pierre Gill help their shows look better and more polished than they actually are and the former, especially in Season 1 of “Borgia” and mainly under the direction of the greatly unpredictable Oliver Hirschbiegel, created an image that felt like so much more than a mere period drama when, by swift contrast, in Season 1 of “The Borgias” Paul Sarossy created a richly beautiful and cinematic look for the show that was nevertheless nothing more than a textbook period drama feel. Cinematography in Season 1 of “Borgia” was quite possibly the most stylized aspect of the production, which says a lot given the extremely edgy costume department and Cyril Morin’s endlessly imaginative music, but Season 2, unfortunately, loses the refreshing handheld camera (and ironically Seasons 2 and 3 of “The Borgias” start employing it in Jon Amiel’s episodes) and goes for a much more pedestrian and static albeit still beautiful period drama look. The vibrancy and depth of real locations in Italy enhances the dramatic forcefulness of the plot and the show is hugely visually pleasing, yet as “Borgia” grows more conservative, “The Borgias” grows more stylized and unique, especially under the direction of Kari Skogland and John Maybury. That applies to the music as well: even if Trevor Morris was excellent from the beginning (the title theme and the music in “Lucrezia’s Wedding” are particular favourites in Season 1), he hits his stride in Season 2, perfecting the show’s sounds even if they still fall firmly in the traditional period drama genre variety of music, while in Season 3 he starts experimenting with new instruments and some more modern-sounding creations that are for the most part extremely successful (there’s some memorable tunes with each new episode of Season 3, it seems). “Borgia”, by swift comparison, doesn’t top its own Season 1 music, which was Morin’s work, and the Season 2 composer Eric Neveux goes for a more average and repetitive palette of sounds that is not bad by any account, still is a serious downgrade from Season 1 (take the title theme for example).

*Banner to Come*
The Big Screen and The Small: The Borgias vs Los Borgia . . .

Part 1: Alexander and Cesare VS Alejandro y Cesar

Los(Borgia)t in Translation

Some ideas are appalling and some are appealing: an American with a heavy accent employed to convey the regal and mature allure of Pope Alexander VI (cough, "Borgia", cough) definitely falls on the former category. But a Spanish actor in the role of the Spanish-and-proud-to-be-so Borgia Pope falls firmly on the latter. As far as completed projects about the Borgia fable go, “Los Borgia” is my favourite and the best one in my opinion (though, to be frank, the 1981 BBC miniseries “The Borgias” and the 1977 French miniseries “Les Borgia Ou Le Sang Dore” are the only other major contenders and if you have watched those you know that they don’t provide much of a contest, the latter especially). I am going to explain the reasons why I like “Los Borgia” so much over this next set of comparative reviews but I am going to state from the beginning that I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this film/miniseries (for the purposes of those reviews I am going to cite the 3-hour extended edition of “Los Borgia” as my source, which is in all respects superior to the originally aired 140-min version, without suffering at all in pace). “Los Borgia” is filmed in authentic-looking locations, features a variety of satisfactorily and realistically luxurious costumes, the main cast is superb and the secondary one is more than functional (most of the actors have unique, interesting "Renaissance" faces that are invaluable when you don’t have the benefit of a lavish screentime), the plot has great flow and quick shifts and the scope and scale of history is ably handled by director/screenwriter Antonio Hernandez (who turns up in a cameo as the doomed Cardinal Orsini). Moreover, the show’s anchored by two glorious leading men: Lluis Homar as Rodrigo and Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Cesare Borgia turn in strong, multi-layered, often touching, sometimes disturbing performances that are, in my opinion, the definitive interpretations of the historical figures of the Borgia Pope and Prince so far (though “The Borgias” threaten to supplant them if the seasons to come feature the same kind of quality in acting and characterization as Seasons 1 and 2). But to compare the movie’s leading men to Jeremy Irons and Francois Arnaud proves extremely difficult: not only are all four actors extremely attractive and phenomenally talented, they also share similarities in their approaches to their characters, their interactions on-screen, their expressing their emotions and so on.

Holiness VS Santidad

Lluis Homar is a versatile Spanish actor (best known for his roles in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” and “Broken Embraces”) and actually my second favourite Rodrigo Borgia after Jeremy Irons (if Irons wasn’t my favourite actor of all times, I am not sure whom I would like best of the two). Homar’s physique, much like Irons’s, allows him to play Rodrigo’s carnal side quite convincingly, not as though Rodrigo were a conventionally handsome Ken doll (cough, "The Tudors", cough) but rather playing up the intoxicating, "aphrodisiac effect of power" aspect of his charming personality and his performance is characterized by the same virility and playfulness that is also evident in JI’s portrayal of Pope Alexander VI. Both actors almost drool when a beautiful woman’s around and their worshipping beauty as a God-given gift is played with deliciously mischievous gusto and inappropriateness, which in turn makes their rage and sorrow all the more surprising, impactful and gut-wrenching, like when the cardinals deny Rodrigo’s will on “Death on a Pale Horse” and Irons enters Profion Mode or leaps over a table to give Juan a proper dressing-down or when Caterina Sforza attempts to murder Pope Alexander VI with a pair of poisoned letters on “Los Borgia” and Homar starts frothing at the mouth, using his weapons-of-choice, some sumptuous cushions, to evict the envoys. Both men may seem more interested in their lascivious affairs, have a difficulty answering the question “Food or Sex?”, be nicknamed by fans as “Your Hornyness” or have a cultured, well-natured, even goofy (Irons much more than Homar) exterior but both actors make it obvious that it is in part a façade to throw off rivals, one that sometimes is easy to pierce through right to their very core of abominable, horrifying megalomania, ambition and greed yet ultimately both actors take their detestable, ruthless hypocrites and turn them into deliciously flawed, colourful, temperamental figures, who become more often than not come across as the most human characters in a sea (or Holy See) of heartless, self-aggrandizing bastards, which is a great accomplishment given that shows populated by antiheros always have to find a way to play their own game of complicity with the audience and find a suitable vessel so that the viewers are at the same time disgusted and fascinated by the characters.

O Cesar (O Cesare) O Nada

When it comes to the two Cesares, the fact that “Los Borgia” is a 3-hour miniseries and “The Borgias” is a -so far- 19-hour series really plays its part when it comes to the characters’ respective developments: Mencheta’s Cesare evolves pretty quickly into the image of Machiavelli’s brutally efficient, cold and relentless Prince, while Arnaud’s Cesare, even though he can play "broodingly calculating" in his sleep while wearing a ridiculous hair-net, a green sleep mask and dreaming of Jeannie, is and remains till the very final scene of the Season 2 finale “The Confession” pretty dependent on his father’s approval and still carrying shreds of conscience. Mencheta is consistent in his characterization, presenting an eager and loyal Cesare that doesn’t seem any less scarier or stronger for it. His "Cesar" is realistically intense, violent, imposing, assertive, sexual, magnetic, seductive, mature, wounded and maniacal, all the characteristics associated with Borgia's historical persona without ever slipping into Oliver Cotton (his Cesare in BBC's "The Borgias" is so "Cruella De Ville" evil that is almost a reason to watch the miniseries in its own right) or Mark Ryder territory (the Cesare in "Borgia" who wouldn't seem out of place in a Ministry of Health ad trying to raise awareness about epilepsy). Arnaud on the other hand adheres to the writing’s regulations and initially tries to be much more loveable, relatable and romantically idealistic so that when he becomes disillusioned with everything he believed in at the end of the first season, he starts in the second season a believable journey of evolution into his historical role. At the end Arnaud’s Cesare is a hero and someone the audience starts by loving, then still grudgingly loves without being able to explain it or back it up with sensible arguments but subsequently loves to hate while Mencheta’s is a loathsome but pretty admirable badass, a magnificent bastard, the cool "bad boy" sort of antihero who gets the better of everyone else but still has a few, minuscule traces of goodness and probably quite as many good excuses: a wounded heart, a competitive childhood, years of being on the receiving end of disdain, racism, slander, abuse and so on. If I didn’t know that Arnaud’s capable of playing the same kind of darkness (and hopefully will in Season 3 onwards), I’d say that Mencheta’s portrayal is much more rounded, enjoyable, subtle and a standout in an array of well-measured, serious performances, particularly since "Los Borgia" lacks the signature campy, humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone of "The Borgias".

How Does One Spell "Chemistry" in Spanish?

When a story has two leads, three in the case of “The Borgias” (in “Los Borgia” Lucrezia isn’t nearly as central as in “The Borgias”, though quite as lovely), it’s very important for those two leads, if the story dictates it, to share a special chemistry and rapport. Maybe it all comes down to screentime but “Los Borgia” can’t possibly beat Irons and Arnaud’s chemistry in “The Borgias”: the two men have a wonderful relationship, where the tables are constantly turned on their heads and the two men seem to alternate and succeed one another in the functions of father/son (Cesare frequently and directly or indirectly scolds Rodrigo as harshly and insightfully as the other way around), mentor/confessor (Rodrigo and Cesare advise one another and relieve one another of their moral burdens), elder/younger (Cesare’s awfully grim, gaunt and humourless when Rodrigo’s jovial and playful), strategist/schemer (Cesare seems to be the expert on tactics and subterfuge but his father can always amaze him with a maneuver he hadn’t thought of) and “The Borgias” is at its best with the two on-screen, complimenting one another’s traits, while their often-strained parent-child relationship bears many modernly recognizable and relatable characteristics. In “Los Borgia”, it can’t be said that Homar and Mencheta feel awkward with one another but their relationship is only visited at the narrative's pleasure and as a result the two feel mostly disconnected and not indispensable to one another.

Part 2: Two Tales of the Same City

The Spanish (Project) Inquisition

A successful adaptation of such a vast, obscure and multi-layered saga such as the lives of the Borgias depends very much on time allowed to introduce, develop and end the story, so it would seem reasonable that a miniseries/movie like “Los Borgia” can’t possibly be compared to a proper series like “The Borgias”. Thankfully, that’s not the case at all with “Los Borgia”, who ably stands its ground and puts its relatively short screen-time (still, its 3 full hours) to great use: the pace is quick, without feeling rushed, and not even a single scene is wasted on something that tells us nothing about the characters, their motives, their dilemmas or that doesn’t portent their fate. “Los Borgia” also has great flow: opting for serenity (reminiscent of episodes of “The Borgias” directed by Neil Jordan and David Leland), the miniseries/movie proceeds with a brilliant sense of confidence and purpose, even if it lacks in urgency and suspense. The extra 40 minutes that are included in the 3-hour extended edition don’t really avail the product of much more than small moments and scenes here and there, the most of important of which are some glimpses into Juan’s life in Spain with his wife Maria Enriquez de Luna, a couple of scenes of Girolamo Savonarola’s (here played with exquisite passion by a memorably grotesque figure) preaching against the Borgia papacy, suffering on the strappado and eventual downfall and finally a series of sequences that helps flesh out the circumstances that set up the story’s climax.

La Historia de un Amok

Unlike “The Borgias” that has so far spent its two seasons devoting an almost equal amount of time to Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia, “Los Borgia” is mainly Cesare’s story, even if it isn’t readily apparent. He’s present in the very first scene (“Los Borgia” stylishly starts in media res), as Machiavelli’s very Prince collaborating with former-slimy-rival-now-slimy-pope Della Rovere, who -not unexpectedly- backstabs him and brings about his incarceration. The film then flashes back more than ten years, so it’s obvious that the narrative is going to work its way up to that point, with Cesare (now entirely different from the mature, consummate warrior we were introduced to a few minutes ago) as its point of reference. “Los Borgia” deftly displays the anti-Borgia animosity of the Roman clans and then wastes no time on the papal election, though it becomes clear that it was fully corrupt (I was a fan of the montage in “The Borgias” that shows Rodrigo coordinating with his family to buy the necessary votes and that’s still my favourite depiction of the Borgias' ascendance but I definitely prefer what “Los Borgia” does to what “Borgia” did by devoting two entire episodes to the 1492 conclave). “Los Borgia” provides hints and clues to Rodrigo’s and other characters’ motivations but still manages to move quickly forward, from Lucrezia’s first marriage (Rodrigo and Ascanio Sforza revealed to be witnessing the consummation is a nice, startling and scandalous touch) to Juan and Cesare’s affair with Sancia (much more an actual character here, with real emotions and bite, than in “The Borgias” or “Borgia”) and then to Juan’s death, Cesare’s conquests and love/hate affair with Caterina Sforza (another character that makes a memorable impression here, given her short screen-time), Lucrezia’s second and third marriages to the two Alfonsos and finally to Rodrigo and Cesare’s death. Only the absence of one central storyline is particularly notable: the French invasion (which is only indirectly mentioned). Back in Season 1, “The Borgias” gained a great sense of focus and the stakes were considerably heightened by the introduction of the French threat and I can’t help but wonder what “Los Borgia” would be like if it had managed to include it, even squeeze it in, because without it the Borgia papacy seems relatively peaceful and easy, though one would argue that politics seem to be much less central for the film, the personal conflicts and tragic flaws of the characters being much more what it's all about. “Los Borgia” doesn’t opt for an overtly complex storyline though a look at the credits would have you believe otherwise: there are at least a dozen actors playing historical characters that either appear only briefly or don’t have instantly recognizable parts (the film tries to include them at least, which is still nice).

El Padrino de "Los Borgia"

Writer/director Antonio Hernandez’s complete grasp on his material means that “Los Borgia” is a definite winner when it comes to tone and pace: melodrama is mostly avoided and when it can’t be avoided it’s at least effectively utilized to the benefit of the film’s tension. “Los Borgia” is characterized by a stoic, quiet quality and a sense of measure that helps the often larger-than-life events feel realistic and logical, grounding the over-the-top violence and cruelty, the only downside to it being that a unique and colourful narrative style isn’t established as the film doesn’t want to -or doesn’t have time to- deviate from the main storylines and explore a previously unscrutinized area of the Borgia fable or some interesting “what if?” angle to it (such as “The Borgias” often does, sometimes to great and sometimes to laughable results, still I respect it for trying to differentiate itself from previous or current retellings). In terms of pace, the film’s main achievement is a clean structure: transition from scene to scene is quick yet smooth and even though there’s no time to reflect or pedantically explain how developments affect characters it’s still easy to see how characters change and develop, how everything carries consequences and how one situation pushes the characters to another. Dialogue here, which is also a great strength of “The Borgias”, sounds natural and musical at the same time (I blame the Spanish language for that), being exceptionally laconic and avoiding clichés, while being sprinkled with touches of subtle wit and satire.

There Are Borgias and Borgias

The characters in “Los Borgia”, either courtesy of the actors (Vanozza, Giulia, Juan and others are little more than cameos here, still you get a pretty clear sense of their stakes in the story thanks to their talented performers) or the writing, are fully likeable, even though the latter explores their dark underbelly (only Lucrezia is somewhat boringly portrayed as a total victim) and makes no excuses for their dreadful acts. That is a great virtue given that we don’t see Cesare, for example, being pushed towards darkness and blind power-craving by romantic rejection or hopeless desire or personal loss (like “The Borgias” would have us believe) and characters in “Los Borgia” seldom fit in the “hero”, “villain”, “sidekick”, “romantic interest” (and so on) tropes. Ultimately, characters in “Los Borgia” (despite the little touches of fictionalization here and there) are what Hernandez imagined them to really be, much more “everyday” Borgias than what they are in “The Borgias”, where they are often presented as a well-balanced blend of the characters as history educates us about and the image of the same characters as shaped and adulterated by (mis)conceptions of public opinion.

Part 3: Amigos y Enemigos

The Project Is Cast

Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia are the only three characters every adaptation of the Borgia saga can’t do without. Yes, the already released films, miniseries or series choose to either focus on a combination of the two out of the three characters (for example Cesare and Rodrigo, as in “Los Borgia”) or emphasize different aspects of the characters’ dynamics (BBC’s “The Borgias” presents some controversial but interesting facets of Rodrigo and Lucrezia’s relationship - yes, you guessed it right, incest!), but otherwise almost all Borgia projects feel bound by history and thus offer roughly the same take on the main, widely famous characters. What makes the Borgia history so gripping and ripe for reimagination is the plethora of rivals, allies, frenemies and romantic interests for the main characters that often get to steal the show and help creators differentiate between the various retellings.

The Casting Director’s Chair (of Saint Peter’s)

Casting a historical drama, especially when visual guides to each specific era are easily available (paintings, documented references and so on), sometimes poses a dilemma: do you cast the actor that looks the part (or alternatively that you can easily make to look the part) or do you cast the actor that you know can play all the sides and nuances of the historical character? Most of the time, a project is lucky to achieve both but if the question was asked I would definitely prefer the second choice. Holliday Grainger’s Lucrezia may not have red or reddish hair but Grainger IS Lucrezia, much like Sergio Peris-Mencheta IS Cesare (even if he lacks certain physical characteristics associated with the Borgia son) -though to be fair, we haven’t yet had a chance to see Arnaud get to play Cesare’s darkest and most interesting years so that he may become THE Cesare- and Adolfo Celi (from the 1981 miniseries “The Borgias”) IS Rodrigo (I love Jeremy Irons and he is a much better actor than every other Rodrigo, reason alone to watch “The Borgias”, but he isn’t Rodrigo as I imagine him to have been, merely a very original, fascinating interpretation of Pope Alexander VI, appropriate for Neil Jordan’s stylish, modern, pulpy approach to the Borgia fable).

You Needn’t Be First To Be Best

Lesser-known secondary characters are much easier to cast, due to the lack of preconceived notions on their appearances and personalities but they remain hugely important dramatically, especially when such a complex story as the Borgia one is concerned. Comparing any other period drama to “The Borgias” (such as “The Tudors” in my previous comparative review) was ultimately a mere contest of talent, star power and ensemble functionality in general, but when two Borgia projects are scrutinized, some straight comparisons are inevitable. Firstly, in “Los Borgia” Lucrezia is diminished to a character that exists simply by her association with her brother Cesare (and his weird, borderline romantic affection for her, Lucrezia’s most compelling relationship and most redeeming storyline in the show) and father Rodrigo. Maria Valverde is lovely, maybe the prettiest Lucrezia so far, and she makes the part effortlessly and infinitely loveable (mostly because she is a harmless, toothless victim, a take on Lucrezia many historians would agree on) but unfortunately Valverde is colourless and its needless to say that “The Borgias” has the best of both worlds by portraying Lucrezia as the innocent-victim-turned-understandably-sinister-manipulator, whom Grainger plays to the hilt, successfully capturing the Borgia daughter’s both good and bad aspects: naiveté, grace, goodness, entitlement, cynicism and pettiness all constitute an irresistible blend that elevates Lucrezia to one of the most rounded characters in “The Borgias”. The great Angela Molina plays Vanozza’s stoic, silent, motherly concern very efficiently but otherwise her criminally short screen-time is a disadvantage when compared to Joanne Whalley who owns Vanozza and injects her with coolness and passion, likeability and mature charm, despite her mostly insubstantial and inconsequential plotlines. Eusebio Poncela’s Della Rovere is wickedly but subtly threatening and serpentine and definitely my second favourite actor in the part, behind the superior Colm Feore who superbly emphasizes DR’s austerity, that makes his hypocrisy all the more appalling. Feore’s at his best when Della Rovere thinks nobody’s looking: as wannabe martyr Antonello approaches him with an offer to become the sacrificial lamb for his grab for the papacy, the supposedly humble and selfless Della Rovere turns towards the camera and begins to briefly and silently fantasize about his ascension, while you can almost witness through his eyes his own papal coronation taking place in his mind. A side character who’s rendered somewhat three-dimensional in “Los Borgia” is surprisingly Sancia: usually portrayed as the archetypal scarlet woman and here deliberately styled to be a diva-like, voluptuous and exotic femme fatale, Sancia is humanized by her friendship with Lucrezia and subsequent grief. Another character who, considering her short screentime, is allowed to make a lasting impression is definitely Caterina Sforza: cast with Paz Vega (of "Sex y Lucia" fame), the wondrous beauty underplays her own sexuality and grants the Sforza virago an unbelievable strength, insight and resilience (Gina McKee’s “Mrs Robinson in armour” is equally delicious though). Burchard in “Los Borgia” is a constantly present Posca-like figure that adds officiousness and -oddly- humour to the proceedings and it is unfortunate we didn’t get to see the wonderfully idiosyncratic Simon McBurney do the same on “The Borgias”, though the Pope has a “body slave” young priest following him everywhere. In “Los Borgia" Sergio Muniz sadly doesn’t get to do much other than being pretty and smiley and his Juan Borgia lacks any kind of real viciousness, his greatest flaw being his mind-numbing incompetence and cuckolding of his brother, but at least he’s reasonably likeable, which means that his death has an impact, as we are made to feel sorry for the loss of such a happy-looking and light young man (not that it can compare with Juan’s two-season fall from grace and David Oakes’s magnificent, gut-wrenching performance in "The Borgias"). There’s no Micheletto other than Sean Harris but Antonio Dechent is also effectively menacing, even if he doesn’t do more than a slow walk here, a creepy stare there, a threatening glare or an everyday garrote to the neck. Enrique Villen’s Savonarola is also deeply passionate and obscure but he can’t possibly compare to Berkoff’s powerful, disconcerting Friar. Lastly, Kate Saunders is no more than a glorified cameo in “Los Borgia” but the casting of such a young-looking and fresh actress as Giulia helps make her relationship with Rodrigo all the more upsetting, something which is much less felt in “Borgia” and “The Borgias” (where Irons and Verbeek feel like an actually plausible couple) but she doesn’t stand her own against the aloof and imperious ice queen Giulia in “The Borgias” (even though the regal and ethereal Verbeek is my favourite in terms of looks she can’t in turn take down Marta Gastini who has “second class harlot/gold-digging b*tch/obsessive attention wh*re” written all over her but still manages to be much more interesting and fun).

No Hay Ganadores

It would seem that “The Borgias” is vastly superior to “Los Borgia” judging by the character-to-character straight comparisons (and it rather is) but such a victory would really matter only if I were comparing one full series to another or if “Los Borgia” wasn’t such an excellently crafted and balanced product. Only Cesare and Rodrigo are indispensable to drive the plot in “Los Borgia” but that doesn’t mean that the writing doesn’t provide them with a realistically and richly populated environment or with a varied array of enemies and allies (mostly enemies). Yes, the show doesn’t include every single character that was acquainted with the real Borgias or every cardinal, lord, king or dignitary that antagonized them (and neither does “The Borgias”, which is much more of a pity and a weakness given its long-form format) but still it doesn’t feel lacking in substance or in cast chemistry and uniformity. The “Los Borgia” ensemble is comprised of talented, reliable individuals that may not exactly be scene-stealers (after all, how could they when the focus is obstinately fixed on the Borgia men?) but are still suited for their roles and add a lot to the viewing experience simply by being there giving life to the background or providing the main characters with both confidantes and opponents.

Part 4: Ireland-Canada-Hungary Vs Spain

Before Rome/After Rome

The matter of production standards is a particularly interesting one to examine when you are about to compare a television series with U.S. and Canada funds to a purely European product intended for cinema (and aired abbreviated as a tele-film or unedited as a miniseries). The latter’s mix of formats and the fact that it’s epic but not on a Hollywood scale and the former’s luck to have been greenlit in an HBO-dominated, television-behemoth-productions era makes the subject so much more convoluted. Naturally, one would expect from a film, even a European one, to have a filmic flavor and scope and a television project to be restricted in its ambition and production standards and draw from a pool of largely second-class -in terms of familiarity with an audience- technicians, directors and acting talent. But that was before “Rome”: that 100-million-dollars-a-season HBO show, along with “Band of Brothers” and a few others, facilitated (and got cancelled trying) the birth -and longevity- of such series as “The Tudors”, “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” and changed the way the public perceives television’s capability of taking on big challenges and delivering on them with equally big productions, which have by now become a television staple and, as a result, much more professional, time-consuming, demanding and practically identical to that of any major motion picture. “The Borgias” may merely be an approximately 50-million-dollars-a-season show but taking into consideration that acclaimed director Neil Jordan originally intended it as possibly a two-hour-and-25-million-dollar movie and, hopefully, by the series finale, will end up having a potentially 40-hour-and-200-million-dollar saga, that has attracted acting giants such as Jeremy Irons, Steven Berkoff, Colm Feore, Derek Jacobi and many others, it doesn’t seem like a production that has many equals, either in terms of sheer size, star appeal or impressiveness. We may yet have to witness a huge, sweeping conflict (like the Battle of Philippi in “Rome” or the Siege of King’s Landing in “Game of Thrones”) yet the two seasons of “The Borgias” served us many impressive moments of visual pleasure, such as several magnificent views of the Basilica of Saint Peter’s or the enormity of the French Arsenal. “Los Borgia” doesn’t really have the time or the will to indulge and revel in its own technical achievements (which “The Borgias” often does) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own remarkable moments.

Much More Downton Abbey Than Boardwalk Empire

Set design and lighting are the primary factors in creating a film/show’s atmosphere. The characters’ natural environment and the way it is bathed in dazzling light or obscured in pitch black darkness reveals details of their personality, their motives or their mood almost as efficiently as their lines, their facial expressions and gestures, so I needn’t stress out how important sets are, especially for a historical show, that has the extra burden of having to depict a particular period, both in its squalor and splendor, that viewers can buy into and let themselves be transported during the experience. With period dramas and set design the dilemma always is: do you try to shoot in the real places, if they still stand, or in places that look like they could have been the real ones or are nearly as old as the real ones and only resort to constructed sets when you can’t? Or is it better to start crafting and building your own world, one you can easily manipulate and transform beyond all recognition as it suits the plot? Tom Fontana’s “Borgia” filmed largely in real Renaissance era buildings in Prague and the results were mixed: the constructed sets were really artful but didn’t exactly fit with the real locations’ style and the show’s promised to rectify that in Season 2 by going to 20 separate locations in Italy to shoot scenes in the same grounds the actual Borgias may have walked (which makes me anxious to watch the final product and furious that “The Borgias”, the superior, in terms of budget -and other terms-, show, couldn’t do the same). “Los Borgia” has a handful of its own magnificent sets but mostly tries to shoot in real places and the experiment is highly successful, especially when the miniseries goes outdoors, in gorgeous gardens, gothic abbeys, stone courtyards and brick alleys that have the benefit of a more worn-down, old-texture and natural look. “The Borgias” on the other hand rarely goes looking for real palaces to shoot in and is self-sufficient in its own studio world, even regarding its exteriors (the show’s partly built Saint Peter’s Square, a Florentine district and Forli Castle, among others). While I think the show's constructed sets -and we are speaking about particularly tasteful and detailed sets, courtesy of production designers Francois Seguin and Jonathan McKinstry- are specimens of excellent craftsmanship that can only be achieved by being inspired by several influences and mixing styles and methods you couldn’t practically find in a real location, as well as a nice uniformity, the show would have been better off trying to find and shoot in some real places, as the sets can sometimes feel and look a little artificial, which mayneverthelesscontribute to the show’s slightly stylized, graphic-novel-y approach to storytelling.

There's Good Costumes And There's Costume Porn

The Emmys may have led you to believe otherwise by awarding “Game of Thrones” with the Best Costume Design statuette but I won’t even bother extolling the virtues of “The Borgias” in that department: Gabriella Pescucci’s incomparable work got even better in Season 2, further proving that the medium of television has nothing to be envious of cinema, neither in terms of sheer size or excellence in quality. That being said, “Los Borgia” isn’t bad by any measure: while costumes aren’t as meticulously detailed or imaginative in shape and colour like in “The Borgias”, they are at least fully compliant with Antonio Hernandez’s vision to present the Borgias in a natural, contemporary context and without the image of the characters being filtered by modern conceptions on their appearance, personality and historical role, which is in part accomplished by the completely unassuming, modest costumes. They are not dull or ugly at all, they just feel like ordinary Renaissance clothes, that could have been borrowed by a museum and lack that certain indefinable factor that elevates the costumes in “The Borgias” above what one commonly sees in any other period drama as well as that slight stylization and edge. A considerable advantage of the costumes in “Los Borgia” nevertheless is the fact that it’s easy to discern between everyday and formal or liturgical wear, which isn’t always a given on “The Borgias”. Ultimately, costumes in “Los Borgia” is just another contributor to the miniseries’ “grounded reality” feel which works marvels in terms of the purpose set by Hernandez and the way he envisioned the characters, but they don’t constitute any unprecedented or unrivalled achievement and a reason to watch all by itself as in “The Borgias”.

Música y Luz

Trevor Morris’ work on “The Borgias” is stellar (the title theme is my favourite ever) and such an important part of the show’s dramatic narrative (there are hardly any moments of complete silence on the series) and a big contributor to the show’s rhythm and flow but I am extremely fond of the tunes in “Los Borgia”. I especially adored the haunting, imposing melody that followed the text that explained the premise of the miniseries (much like the one that preceded Innocent’s deathbed in “The Poisoned Chalice”) and introduced us to a very menacing Cesare in his armour and black cape. Otherwise, the music was more than satisfactory and I found it refreshing that the Latin vocals that have become associated with any show about the Borgia family were largely absent. When it comes to cinematography, even though “Los Borgia” mostly lacked the wide view of a battlefield or the far shots commonly associated with historical epics, cinematography by Javier Salmones is admirably lush and filmic, sometimes refreshingly energetic and others calmly focused. Paul Sarossy’s work on “The Borgias” hardly ever comes across as equally cinematic (the television picture format is more to blame rather than the cinematographer’s ability) but his image is just as detailed (if not more) and much bolder in terms of colour and scale, while his framing is much more varied, according to the demands of each director.

*Banner to Come*
All Roads Inevitably Lead Back to Rome: The Borgias vs Rome . . .

Part 1: All Roads Lead to "Rome"... And With Good Reason

Rebel With A Cause

The Rome-dominated Mediterranean antiquity inspired some of the very first and best historical epics, either on film or on television, such as “Spartacus”, “Ben Hur” and “I, Claudius”. Come Easter time, every viewer is reminded not only of a Rome-dominated world but also a Rome-dominated genre, the culmination of which is indisputably the historical drama “Rome” which achieved something unique: it is both the king and the rebel in the history of television epics (which never really went out of fashion but are right now going through a Golden Age, a revitalized phase of modernity in creative approach and renewed commercial and critical interest). The HBO-BBC-RAI mammoth-endeavor that cost 100 million dollars was early crowned as one of the best (in my opinion THE best) ever historical dramas and revolutionized the way television epics are produced but sadly, like any proper rebel, died sooner than it should have (it only lasted for 2 seasons and gave us 22 wonderful episodes). Thankfully, that time was enough for it to make an impact and prove that television can actually be just as -or at least almost as- ambitious as cinema in its scope, not to mention that it set an example of quality standards recreated by (mostly unworthy) successors such as “The Tudors”, “The Borgias”, “Boardwalk Empire”, “Borgia” and “Game of Thrones”. This part of my first comparative review for 2013 (I’ve missed engaging in stimulating conversations with you, guys!) will be less about a straight comparison of one aspect of “The Borgias” to the respective one of “Rome” but rather an exploration of what “Rome” offered in abundance that most of today’s historical/epic shows lack: an actual perspective when it came to narrative and a creative reimagining of written history.


Choosing an interesting era to explore -meaning an era packed with scandalous sex, wanton bloodshed and naked ambition- is an absolute prerequisite for any self-respecting period drama. That’s the standard most historical shows easily and effortlessly meet and when it comes to a dark age of idolatry, conquest and radical political shifts one can hardly find better than the Roman Republic/Empire. Fortunately, “Rome” didn’t rely solely on this. Opting simply for a straight retelling of the final days of Caesar and the subsequent rise of Octavian and his conflict with Antony and Cleopatra, Bruno Heller would merely have had created a more pleasing in terms of visuals prequel for “I, Claudius”, the stellar BBC effort that attempted, mostly successfully, to inject wit and cynicism to what was by then (the ‘70s) a pretty stale, unoriginal, bland, “stereotypic hero” field. Intelligently, the creator of “Rome” knew he needn’t look too far to find a unique way to narrate the final years of the Roman Republic: he went for the old, tried-and-true “rich versus poor” (rather “patrician versus plebeian”) duality which enabled him to explore Roman society horizontally rather than vertically, and instead of only focusing on the upper-class domestic and political feuds, which would have soon proved tiresome and repetitive, not to mention that they are already played to death, he chose to open the show’s narrative to all kinds of interesting opportunities, full of parallels to today’s state of political affairs, inequality, questions of homeland and allegiance, spousal relationships and so on. In effect, the same, unoriginal, almost clichéd upstairs/downstairs device that “Downton Abbey” partly owes its success to is transformed in “Rome” in an entirely new thing: a prism through which history isn’t simply rewritten but rather made or lived. The difference: the social mobility. Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, two of the greatest original character creations in ‘00s television and one of the best specimens of male chemistry and camaraderie, become the audience’s vessels -or perhaps vassals- and lead us through a very authentic-looking-and-feeling ancient Rome for 22 episodes that have them go through personal triumph, loss, despair, madness and even death, all the while influencing historical developments in an admirably organic way that adds a whole new layer of unpredictability and suspense to an already well-known story that’s been told innumerable times before.

The Patrician and the Pauper

The social mobility I alluded to above is one of the defining factors in the storytelling of “Rome” and instead of an obstinate and relentless “patricians VS plebs” approach that would see the caged in their marble villas rich people always denigrate and battle the poor, the writers opt for a “patricians AND plebes” storyline that doesn’t even for a moment glorify the appalling slavery-based Roman economy but also, realistically, examines the human bonds inevitably developed between the nobles and those beneath them, often seeing the former seeking the aid, counsel, affection, even approval of their servants, dependants, bodyguards et cetera. This upstairs/downstairs approach of “Rome” may sound -and actually is- conventional: the vast gap between the rich and the poor in any given era is examined, however fleetingly, in pretty much every historical drama, even as a theme indirectly touched upon by simply displaying the unbelievable luxury and glamour of the lives of Kings, Popes, gangsters or Lannisters. BUT: in “Rome”, the initially established impression that the patricians are going to be involved in the political storyline and the plebs in the more personal, soapier side of the narrative is soon proven false. The political storyline is quite often driven by the plebeians or at least greatly impacted by their actions while the personal passions and weaknesses overtake the Roman bourgeoisie and leads to the marvelously juicy and dangerous developments. In fact, “Rome” is never better than when the personal merges with the political and turn into one hot mess, with tragic consequences for all involved (a glorious example being Caesar’s assassination, perhaps in the show’s best episode, the Season 1 finale “Kalends of February”). Due to the complexity and variety generated by deftly mixing characters of different backgrounds and agendas, pretty much every single episode in “Rome” is packed with an equally large amount of plot and character development, unusually rich in tension and action, almost as if the writers were aware while plotting both seasons that they wouldn’t get more time than what they eventually got to tell everything they wanted to say).

Roma Invicta

Big-budget shows that followed “Rome” may boast that they tell their story in as interesting a way as possible. “Game of Thrones” takes pride in being a series with a vastly complicated storyline comprised of countless separate -and disparate, in my opinion- plot threads, inhabited and driven by myriads of characters, but unfortunately only a handful of them are interesting at any given moment or have the benefit of mere presence, let alone motion and evolution, in a 50-min installment. “Boardwalk Empire” explores crime during the Prohibition in a pretty straightforward way, its only innovation being that its main character is part real/part fictional which allows for a certain amount of creative license, surprise and imagination. “The Tudors” managed to examine the reign of Henry VIII and the fate of his six wives in a sexy, refreshingly trashy and glitzy manner. Unfortunately, “The Borgias” is the most pedestrian show in that respect: though appealing in every sense and quite breathtaking in some ways, “The Borgias” has nothing new to add in terms of the ways of telling a story and other than reimagining history here and there (mostly, not to its benefit), it quite closely and obediently follows the tropes of the historical drama genre (extremely archaic-sounding language and theatricality, slow pace, especially in Season 1, and changing the episodes’ format is extremely out of the question – why historical dramas can’t more often employ successful, both in terms of critical and ratings appeal, devices such as flashback episodes or “bottle” episodes?). Actually, worse than telling the story in a commonplace way, the show often makes real history seem much more simple and tame than it was in reality, its only contribution to the Borgia lore and its only redeeming invention being the surprisingly mature and non-stereotypical presentation and evolution of the Cesare-Lucrezia relationship that gets much of the show’s screen-time and is placed front-and-center in almost each and every one of the show’s storylines, intelligently functioning as a permanent, subterranean allegory for forbidden desire and what it transforms human beings to. Other than that, the show’s main themes of sin and power feel awfully generic, even though the show makes commendable efforts to be a mild and non-judgmental analysis of the characters’ psyche and personal journeys.

Part 2: The Die is (Ensemble) Cast


If there’s a show that truly makes the best of every member of its ensemble cast that is “Rome”. Contrary to “The Borgias”, which rallies its ensemble only to provide its three leads, Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia, with allies, enemies or love interests, “Rome” constructs a multi-layered plot that is at the same time or successively driven by Caesar, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, Mark Antony, Atia, Octavian and many more who have the privilege of stepping in the limelight and getting their characters fleshed out by alternating in the role of hero, antihero or villain. Absolutely dominant among the characters in Season 1 is Gaius Julius Caesar, the historical figure most people associate Roman antiquity with and Ciaran Hinds was at the time the show premiered the most versatile and veteran cast-member in “Rome”, as well as an excellent and unique choice for the part (nowadays he’s enjoying renewed fame as the gazillionth addition to the “Game of Thrones” cast, after a hit-and-miss performance as Sigourney Weaver’s adulterous ex-husband in the mediocre miniseries “Political Animals”). His Caesar is painted as cool (completely different than the Caesars in the "Asterix et Obelix" film series), quietly egomaniac and at the same time just, reasonable and humane. We hardly ever see Caesar crack but he’s got moments of silent grief or deafeningly intense menace and fury that come as a shock, since Caesar acts as if he already owns or knows everything there is and nobody can rattle him. Ironically, the moment Caesar is really immortalized is the moment he is ultimately humanized: Caesar’s assassination ends Season 1 with a bang (the depiction of the event in “Kalends of February” is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series and my favourite on-screen capture of the Roman Dictator’s death) and Hinds, drenched in blood and staggeringly feeble is a horrifying image: the political giant, whose shadow covered every single plot development so far is no more. Caesar’s death is the harbinger of chaos for political stability in “Rome” and the show in Season 2 is instantly elevated -despite the absence of one of its most talented thesps- to something even more eventful and gripping (I know many viewers disliked Season 2 due to its fast pace, elimination of important historical moments/figures and time-jumps but, drama-wise the show was never more action-packed, diverse and compelling). One of the innovations of “Rome” is that Caesar was definitely one of its main players, yet his screen-time was often sacrificed for the sake of lesser-known figures or semi-fictional creations such as Vorenus and Pullo, who were placed at the epicenter of the show’s dramaturgy at Caesar’s expense, due to their storyline having the benefit of surprise. Rodrigo Borgia is utilized similarly in “The Borgias” and Jeremy Irons is less present than one would think judging by the show’s posters or his top billing, but with one crucial difference: the show always returns to him no matter what, at least so far (in its first two seasons). While Caesar was constantly present even when he wasn’t on-screen, Pope Alexander VI frequently seems more occupied with frivolous endeavors than political schemes, which are often carried out by his sons or daughter BUT for the real, human drama the series constantly turns back to him to deliver. Whether it is the prospect of imminent doom or a father’s mourning and the remembrance of an entire lifetime of erroneous judgment, Irons amazes and proves that Hinds’ distant yet humane Caesar may have eventually turned out to be just another human after all but his often inhumane Rodrigo is always contradictory, often idiotic and prone to sinful desire, dangerous, arrogant, weak, tender, sentimental and in short deeply, uncompromisingly, consistently human.

Augustus Cesare And Juan Mess After Juanother

The younger generation that both Hinds and Irons often have to take a back seat for in their respective shows is at least as deserving and as professional as their elder cast-members: Ray Stevenson, Kevin McKidd, James Purefoy, Max Pirkis and Simon Woods in “Rome” and Francois Arnaud, David Oakes and Sean Harris in “The Borgias” are all magnificent. For those viewers who didn’t know of the real Octavian, the character’s arc in “Rome” may initially seem pointless: why focus so much on Caesar’s nephew, other than his value as a fun, interesting sidekick to Titus Pullo (and vice versa) or accessory to Caesar himself? Yes, the character is somewhat cold and hardly vulnerable, precocious and calculating beyond his age, which make for an interesting angle in an already varied palette of characters but the real potential and purpose of the character is slowly revealed towards the close of Season 1 and throughout Season 2. Both Max Pirkis as Young Octavian and Simon Woods as Octavian Caesar do a sensational job portraying the future Emperor Augustus, Pirkis lending him a sense of genuine industry and benevolent pedantry and Woods injecting him with a delicious passive-aggressive megalomania and boiling, suppressed urges. As Cesare Borgia in “The Borgias”, Arnaud fulfills a similar role, managing to come across as infinitely more likeable, though the character’s trajectory in Season 3 (and whatever form Season 4 may potentially appear in) will possibly imitate that of Octavian and test and strain the audience’s adoration of Cesare, even if Francois Arnaud has thus far achieved the impossible: everybody knows and dreads what Cesare is evidently capable of, yet almost nobody hates him. Much like “The Borgias” is at its best when the father-son duo of Rodrigo and Cesare are bonding and collaborating over various nefarious conspiracies or when Cesare and Lucrezia’s indecently close relationship is at the forefront, “Rome” establishes that the show’s beating heart is the friendship between the austere, staunch Catonian Lucius Vorenus and the carefree lover of life Titus Pullo. The two men are molded by one another’s influence and their lives change forever while “Rome” never forgets the initial prism through which it examined them: these men are soldiers who are having trouble getting accustomed to everyday business and domestic life, who don’t know quite how to fit in a society that’s seemingly at peace, well-to-do and civilized (at least by the era’s standards) but has a dark and hard-to-navigate underbelly of seething bloodlust, ruthless greed and wretched deception and who still consider an honorable battlefield as their one real home. Indirectly criticizing the terrors of war and the effects they have on the structure of human communities, “Rome” lets the characters get irrevocably messed up and witnesses their transformations from humans into monsters and back to humans, a process that ultimately leads to catharsis. The same catharsis isn’t afforded on “The Borgias” but maybe that’s for the best: Juan, in a stellar turn by David Oakes, is much more delicious as his completely unapologetic, chaotic self. While Vorenus and Pullo were salvaged by their loyalty to one another, Juan’s characterized by his animosity towards everyone but his father and his marginalization as a result of his inability to control his urges and handle the privilege and excess he was born to without trying to assert his superiority over everyone else. His character somewhat echoes that of Mark Antony in “Rome”, whom James Purefory turns into one of the most compelling antiheroes in a show full of them, in that Antony too is a seductively charming, voluptuous narcissist whose allegiances die with Caesar. Just like Juan, Antony lacks the control and cold resilience of the other schemers on the show and his pursuits are mostly carnal in nature -Atia and Cleopatra are the only people he seems to have an actual connection to-, while his reaction to adversity resembles that of the middle Borgia son: at the first sign of defeat or difficulty, the inner self-destructiveness in both Juan and Antony is triggered and much like petulant children who eternally put the blame for their own shortcomings on the hand fate has dealt them, they resort to debauchery and malice, which makes them at once fascinating and contemptible, sympathetic and abhorrent.

Caesar’s Wife Must Be Above Suspicion, But Only She

The characters in a period drama that are the most fun are definitely those falling under the “female schemer” category. The idea that in a male-dominated European past, a woman with few to no rights would have to resort to her feminine wiles to survive and prosper may sound extremely trite and it absolutely is. But it makes for brilliant television: I applaud “The Borgias” for not turning its primary female cast-members (Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Lotte Verbeek and Gina McKee) into stereotypical backstabbing b*tches but I can’t help but wonder whether the show would be so much more consistently entertaining if it had. That is made painfully evident in comparison to “Rome” and I am such a big admirer of the show’s female cast-members (Polly Walker, Lindsay Duncan, Kerry Condon, Indira Varma, Lyndsey Marshall, Zuleikha Robinson and Haydn Gwynne) not only because every woman there is fiercely passionate, loving, manipulative, controlling, domineering and dangerous all at once but because the HBO saga somehow figures the best way to allocate its limited screen-time so that every actress would get at least one chance at some point to sink her teeth into exquisitely meaty material: of all the above, even Gwynne who had the least on-screen appearances as Caesar’s devoted spouse, the imperious Calpurnia, became the highlight of the Season 2 premiere “Passover” for me, with her heart-breaking lamentation of Caesar providing her with ample opportunity to shine and amaze. Of all the women in “Rome”, the one that got the largest amount of screen-time and made the most out of it was definitely Walker as Atia. Initially representing nothing more than the traditional femme fatale trope, Atia swiftly transformed from a controlling matriarch to a lonely woman in love to a heart-broken harpy to a pitiful victim and back. Her delicious wit and sassy personality, her endless ambition and hopeless sentimentality for Antony facilitated her having one of the show’s most satisfying arcs and turned her from someone you love to hate into someone you are cheering for. Vanozza, on the other hand, one of the most likeable characters in “The Borgias”, is ably portrayed by Whalley as a clever and feisty woman (and her personality combines elements of the historical Vanozza with Adriana de Mila and Giulia Farnese, even if the latter exists separately in the show) but the script has her only popping up at its convenience, mostly for advice here and there and almost never renders her an important cog of the narrative, rather a mere plot device at best. Vanozza goes through serious emotional turmoil, especially in Season 1, and Whalley makes for a thoroughly fascinating watch but neither her explosions nor her stoic moments are as deep or as involving as what we witness Atia go through or even Servilia, the ultimate scorned woman: the latter effectively emerges as the arch-villain(ess) of “Rome” by being instrumental in the decision to assassinate Caesar and the event’s aftermath and Duncan is terrifyingly remote and icy as she cynically manipulates Brutus and Octavia, both of whom she’s professed to love. The remnants of warmth and very real human needs are distinguishable behind this character’s dark motives, frosty façade and longing for vengeance, just as they are for practically every other schemer on the show (such as Gaia or Cleopatra), a core of humanity and depth that’s only hinted at in Vanozza or Giulia, who would have been far more captivating constantly plotting against each other (like Atia and Servilia) or suffering the physical and psychological consequences of vying for the insatiable Pope’s undivided attention. Unquestionably, the most rounded female character and the one that gets the most screentime in “The Borgias” is Lucrezia: Grainger exhibits talent, measure and maturity beyond her acting experience and age and draws a very compelling portrait of the Renaissance lady, alternating between a victimized innocent girl and a relentless predator while the show sometimes wants her as sin personified and others as the very embodiment of warmth, class and intellect. The viewers’ sympathy falls easily on her even when she’s embarking on a dark mission, something that only happens for Niobe and Octavia in “Rome”, respectively portrayed by Indira Varma and Kerry Condon. The former plays a sort of Roman “Desperate Housewife” to perfection, a woman trying to juggle her battle-scarred husband who feels purposeless in peacetime and her shady past, her children and her social status. Varma imbues Niobe with a nobility above her lowborn status, which makes her doom all the more tragic. Condon is equally good as Atia and Servilia’s toy and while her importance somewhat diminishes in Season 2, the character displays signs of growth and becomes much more sarcastic and insightful, sometimes even playing mother and conspirator to Atia herself, but without losing her kindness and honesty. I wouldn’t be able not to mention the majestic Gina McKee in “The Borgias” as Caterina Sforza, who appears only in 5 episodes out of the 19 so far (and she has more than one scene only in 3 of them) but makes the most of her time and gives us a wonderfully understated and nuanced performance of a woman so believably larger-than-life, passionate and frigid, impulsive and calculating, noble and brutal, just and vindictive, a mother and a soldier, ultimately a man and a woman combined in one. Can’t wait to see more of her in Season 3.

Good Heroes Make the Best Villains

Perhaps the area that the two shows most differ is drawing their villains, as “The Borgias” seem to be full of them and “Rome” mostly devoid. In a show where practically everyone is a sympathetic villain, I applaud “The Borgias” for such indelibly vile creations such as Alfonso of Naples, Giovanni Sforza and King Charles VIII but “Rome” makes a stronger case mostly because it doesn’t readily present a villain but rather takes its heroes and turns them into one progressively over the course of the show. Pompey is perhaps the least developed character in the entire show and the antagonist in the first half of Season 1 in the sense that the viewer is inclined to side with Caesar not because Pompey feels to be at fault (both men crave the same thing, dominion over Rome, and do not differ that much personality-wise) but because Caesar is much more present on-screen and much more recognizable to a modern audience. Kenneth Cranham nevertheless and Karl Johnson as Cato (a character that's introduced to, among other things, emphasize the futility of obstinancy and blind loyalty to old beliefs) both do justice to their characters and magnificently play up both the likeable human qualities as well as their outrageously haughty and elitist campaigns. In fact when Pompey perishes in “Pharsalus” and Cato commits suicide in “Utica” we actually feel pity for them, a pity we can’t feel for Savonarola, whom “The Borgias” has made sure that we hate, portraying him as a gay-stoning, witch-burning lunatic. Steven Berkoff of course is excellent every step of the way and the show’s clever enough to emphasize the rather tried but still enjoyable “grotesque, otherworldly mad monk” stereotype but “Rome” is much more pleasingly complex as it pits its characters against one another simply in a relentless pursuit of the same thing, more power, and lets us form our judgments based on their personality and methods. Practically everyone is on a rise-and-fall trajectory in “Rome” and some characters function as antagonists but the writers give us at least a few reasons to see why the characters are what they are: Brutus, Caesar’s wounded surrogate son, played by Tobias Menzies, and Cicero, the serpentine and timorous Moderate that jumps from camp to camp without batting an eyelid (or perhaps, only by doing that, it’s almost the character’s tic), portrayed by David Bamber, are only two of the show’s characters that oppose the main stars, never quite forgiving Caesar for his leniency and mercy. Both suffer tragic (and tear-inducing) deaths, which once again underlines the show’s flawless casting decisions and the marvelous job the writers were doing when they were planning their arcs, emphasizing their devotion to their convictions (one of the show’s main, constantly present themes) rather than presenting them as mustache-twirling, one-dimensional villains. “The Borgias” has only one such character: Cardinal Della Rovere appears in every single episode of the show so far and has his own plot thread, initially as an embittered loser willing to play ball until his life is threatened, which turns him to a sanctimonious plotter, with shreds of deep, unwavering religious beliefs and breathtaking willpower behind his quest for retribution. In other words, Colm Feore portrays a role whose description could fit any of the show’s Borgia protagonists that he brilliantly complements.

Part 3: Cinecitta Wasn't Built in a Day

The 100-million-dollar Question

Every show has its fair share of critics or detractors but the one focal point everyone that has watched even minutes of a “Rome” episode agree on is its impeccable quality in production, incomparable by 2005 standards. As a die-hard fan of the show that considers it (yes, I am never going to tire of repeating that) the best ever television historical epic and an instant classic that doesn’t feel outdated today (almost 10 years after it premiered), I always found it much easier to find faults with the show’s production than any other department of its sheer magnificence. “Rome” reportedly cost 100 million dollars per season which sounds like an awful lot and it is (the Netflix remake of my beloved “House of Cards” series costs 100 million dollars as well, albeit for two full seasons of 13 episodes each, and the industry is already acting as if it's something colossal). In a time (2005-2007) when “Boardwalk Empire” (70-80 million dollars per season), “Game of Thrones” (60 million) or “The Borgias” (45-50 million) were yet to be born in order to compare, “Rome” dominated the television epic landscape and convinced viewers and television experts that TV can be as ambitious as film and follow similar production regulations to attain the same level of visual and aesthetic excellence. “Rome” lacks nothing in that sense: from sets, to costumes, to VFX, to music and so on, the show’s perfectly capable (as most of the above-mentioned) of standing its own ground against any cinematic mega-production. Still, for a 100-million-dollar-per-season show I get the feeling that I am not witnessing every single dollar pop up on-screen: some (if not most) of that budget was spent paying a steep price for the gorgeous Mediterranean, Italian sun. Filming in the legendary (and legendarily expensive) Cinecitta studios availed the joint HBO-BBC-RAI production of authentic Italian settings, big facilities to accommodate and build its own world as well as access to native extras, what with notions of “bella figura” and all, which are all considerable benefits that contribute to the show’s atmosphere and flavor but, if you ask me, with 100 million dollars in budget the producers could have worked miracles had they chosen another country to shoot in, such as Hungary where “The Borgias” is filmed (nowadays though, I hear, Italy is much more welcoming for movie and television productions: “Borgia” with its mere 30 million euros budget was able to film a large part of its second season there). Ultimately one of the determining factors behind the show’s cancellation, this vast sum (mis)spent on the show’s creation doomed it (when production partner BBC dropped out of any future budgetary contribution beyond the show’s second -and final- season) and despite its almost unprecedented height (to my knowledge, only miniseries “Band of Brothers” had a larger budget, i.e. 125 million dollars), the show itself failed to build an ever-expanding and comprehensive, all-encompassing world that would ensure its survival (something that “Game of Thrones” has tremendously succeeded into, despite other weaknesses).

Rome in Middle Earth

Maybe the most hyped aspect of the production of “Rome” was its Forum set: a marvelously, painstakingly detailed set bustling with rapid activity, that jumps from the screen with color yet still feels fairly old and lived-in (just like everything in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy did, at Peter Jackson’s wise insistence), it actually is about 60% in size compared to the real thing (whereas, for example, the same set in 60’s extravaganza and Elizabeth Taylor starrer “Cleopatra” is three times the size of the actual location). Despite being the stage that ably and satisfactorily plays host to many of the show’s big action pieces (Mark Antony’s march on the Senate, Caesar and Octavian’s triumphs, Caesar’s funeral), at the end, just like Saint Peter’s Piazza in “The Borgias”, which fulfills a similar function, the Forum set lacks a sense of depth and doesn’t help make the geography of the show any clearer. Still, the Forum is much better detailed and actually more varied and beautiful, while it thankfully avoids the Piazza’s façade-like, cardboard surface, convincing the viewer of the buildings’ size and multiple sides and dimensions. The Rome set is enhanced by well-designed exteriors for Atia, Servilia and Caesar’s villas, who are all sadly reminiscent of one another, differing only in color and wall patterns, and the Aventine Hill region set, another large and oddly picturesque establishment of palisades and slums by the Tiber that copies the Forum’s worn texture but feels substantially poorer and even more dilapidated and chaotic (“The Borgias” have their own slum set, which is, surprisingly, very good, compared to the work done on the Piazza, but much smaller than the Aventine). The last major “Rome” set is the port in Alexandria and the entrance to the Pharaohs’ palace: a set deliberately designed to look as African and different to the marble halls of Rome as possible (in an era that Alexandria had yet to completely abolish its Ptolemaic, Hellenistic influences), the Alexandria exteriors (and interiors) feature interesting and bold choices in shape and colour that somehow still fail to convey the real splendor of the Egyptian monarchy (the actual palace of the Pharaohs constituted the ¾ of Alexandria) and don’t significantly expand the show’s world. “The Borgias” may not (yet) feel as sprawling as “Rome” or “Game of Thrones” but the plot often leaves the walls of Rome for the sake of Naples, Florence or Forli and especially the latter offers a broad view of a different architectural, maybe much more Spartan and battle-ready style, which is still interesting and eye-catching nonetheless and I get the sense that the show knows better how to make leaving the walls of Rome and the Vatican a big thing and anchor the episode around that change of scenery. Still, even though Season 2 revolves a lot around Florence, the Piazza of Santa Maria Novella set is much duller than the Alexandria one unfortunately and even more pedestrian than the Saint Peter's Piazza. When it comes to interiors, both shows fare much better opting for realistic opulence and not stylized magnificence (like “Borgia” does), so I am inclined to call this a tie.

Gabriella Invicta

There isn’t, right now at least, and there hasn’t been, so far at least, a show with costume design that can take on “The Borgias” and win (never mind what the Emmys would have you think). “Rome” isn’t an exception. April Ferry’s creations are wonderful and much thought (and money) has gone into them but no designer can really top Gabriella Pescucci’s work on “The Borgias” (which makes it all the more boring for me to touch upon costume design again and again in every comparative review when I already know that Pescucci is going to come out as the winner, for me at least). That being said, I think that Ferry and Pescucci have a similar approach to their designs, making terrifically detailed and flamboyant costumes that don’t feel inauthentic or inappropriately stylized, edgy or slightly futuristic (such as the ones in “The Tudors” and, to a lesser extent, in “Borgia”) and the strength of both women is deciding on and mixing the right materials, jewelry, fabrics and textures to compose pieces of clothing that are extremely and refreshingly varied and appealing to the eye. It is actually rather funny that both shows feature a vast ("The Borgias" especially) array of luxurious costumes, especially for the women, that only have the downside of not particularly differentiating between every-day, casual wear and formal attires (aside from the Pope’s liturgical outfits in “The Borgias”) and that burden falls, as the “Rome” commentary informed me, on hair styling. As is expected, elaborate, geometrical hairdos and outrageous color combinations are everywhere to be found when the show moves to an aristocratic parlor, almost rivaling the extremely voluminous and Bree-van-de-Kamp-perfect “The Borgias” hairstyles.

Style Stealing

Since I can’t remember when I last watched a show with a title credits theme as pleasing as Trevor Morris’ in “The Borgias” when it first premiered in 2011, it’s refreshing to (even partially) re-watch a show that features an equally artful and tone-setting opening, dressed with such an evocative and characteristic (somewhat Eastern, in my ears at least) theme. Jeff Beal’s work in “Rome” is marvelous, maybe better than Morris’ overall (though the “The Borgias” theme remains a favorite), and I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard Caesar’s triumphal music adjusted for Octavian’s triumph to sound much more ominous and tremor-inducing. When it comes to the other areas of production that define a show’s essence, I’d say that “Rome” doesn’t significantly differ from “The Borgias” in the sense that, cinematography-wise, both shows strive for an earthy, grounded style (“Rome” more than “The Borgias”, as the latter is the more likely to infrequently break into more cartoonish, comic-book style action) and an oddly similar Mediterranean look (“The Borgias” may be filmed in Hungary and “Rome” in Italy, making the latter much more authentic-looking-and-feeling but the producers of the first have made commendable efforts to make it look as lush and sun-bathed as possible).

Part 4: Writers on the Storm

Sword and S(c)andal

It’s true -unfortunately for art and its reputation of ripping off real stories- that fiction can hardly be nastier than reality and that history is so genuinely gripping and horrific by itself that any kind of adaptation would only mitigate its documented, factual monstrosity. That is definitely the case with both the story of the lives of the Borgias (though I could quite easily argue that there were far more atrocious Popes, after reading John Julius Norwich’s “The Popes: A History”) and the last years of the post-Etruscan Roman Republic, but to claim that anything less than a totally accurate retelling of the events would rob an adaptation of its intensity and, by extent, its entertainment value would only be partly sincere. Yes, most often, historical epics either in film or television tend to dumb down, romanticize or mangle historic truth for the sake of commercial concerns but making something more accessible to an audience or more consistently -even inaccurately- dramatic and fun isn’t wrong in itself, as long as it’s dictated by creative approach and not marketing. First of all, a completely straight and fully-attentive-to-written-historic-fact narrative would require zero storytelling talent (merely good researching and organizational skills), would involve little to not creativity and would most likely resemble a docudrama (not that those are without creative virtue but their purpose is incompatible with standing the test of time as an artistic creation) or something suitable to be used in a class as a lively history guide (but, as everyone can imagine, blood and boobies would then be out of the question!). Additionally, not a single part of history, as documented, can be considered canon: Historian A, let’s call him Dr. Mainstream, will support one specific theory of how things really happened that most people will endorse and Historian B, Dr. Radical, will support another, at the very least partly alternative scenario of how things happened and will claim that he’s based that on new findings aided by modern technology or different sources, so who’s to define which version is the accurate one after all? And there’s always the question of sources: Should one go back to original, contemporary sources, tainted as they are with subjectivity and pathos or a more distant point-of-view, hampered by lack of proximity to the time and/or place where events took place and unconquerable practical difficulties in the pursuit of truth? And third and most important, if a writer/producer decides that he needn’t look any further than history to discover and be inspired by the most captivating tales, then he should surely tap into his own taste, experience and fascination with the material, which will help him generate a unique rendition of events, one that will copy no other previous one and make sure that it raises the bar for any future one. I have often alluded to the fact that I may not be entirely happy with every single change Neil Jordan’s made to the most famous stories surrounding the Borgia clan but the fact that he hasn’t abstained from some very controversial alterations (and some very bold ones are yet to come if promotional material for Season 3 is any indication) is a great advantage for the show: when the next project dealing with the Borgias -or any other period, family or historical figure for that matter- can just be around the corner (the show itself has to compete, so to speak, with “Borgia”, a very different narration of the Borgia papacy, running almost concurrently in Europe, which I can’t wait to compare “The Borgias” to in an upcoming review) and will potentially have the benefit of better production standards (which doesn’t necessarily mean a larger budget, merely more advanced filming equipment and VFX technology, which are going through a golden age and facing exponential progress), the only real choice a creator is left with, should he want for his work to resonate as a decent, classic or even definitive (in terms of fan and critics appreciation, not authenticity-wise) version of the history-inspired events, is shedding light on a previously unseen side of the story and using his own imagination to craft an original version of the plot. Thankfully, both “The Borgias” and “Rome” have creators that make the necessary choices in adapting history so that when the next retelling of their respective stories emerges, it can’t have possibly sprung from the same mind.

Advanced Roman History

When a writer is dealing with an extremely well-known story, as is the case with “Rome” (and less with “The Borgias”), it is far more difficult to ignite interest and generate suspense, especially when almost everyone knows that whatever is happening on-screen is building up to a shockingly violent moment, a momentous and archetypal political assassination, Gaius Julius Caesar’s death, or one of the most famous and heart-breaking romances ever (Anthony and Cleopatra’s). Thankfully, “Rome” knows how to throw many surprises the viewers’ way and that is partially achieved through introducing and inserting into almost every single one of the show’s plot-threads two part real part fictional characters, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, and partially by subtly (or not so subtly sometimes) altering the circumstances or the outcome of various history-established events. Yes, that’s the very definition of historical inaccuracy in a historical television show but it is completely immaterial. Why? Because “Rome” provides intelligent entertainment, compelling action and gripping narration. Ably keeping track in every single episode of the dozens of central characters (in a much better way than “Game of Thrones”, albeit with half the number of roles, which is still quite a lot) and setting up their arcs so that they are interwoven and the characters interact and mix in the most unforeseeable combinations, “Rome” offers an entirely new level of complexity and storytelling adequacy. More than that, “Rome” shouldn’t simply be considered a marvel in plotting: the show tackles character development with the same level of depth, unpredictability and relentlessness. Surprisingly full with real and relatable emotions and troubling, uncompromising dilemmas of an existential, religious or practical nature, “Rome” has characters going through constant swifts in their status, their political or religious allegiances, their loyalty to their spouses or masters, swifts that enable the series to elaborately and eloquently talk about instantly recognizable and utterly modern subjects, such as love, despair, ambition and loneliness, witnessed in a volatile world that boils with cutthroat violence and astounding inequality. “Rome” doesn’t avoid some historical show tropes, to be sure, (candle-lit intrigue, femme fatales and manipulative matriarchs, seductive aristocratic bastards and noble plebeians, pet assassins and poisoners and so on) but every cliché is turned on its head as characters are allowed to breath and evolve and go places they don’t normally go in the genre. “Rome” can’t afford to dispense with action and plot motion and every episode has its fair share of story developments and more conventional twists but the show admirably manages to find time and space for its characters, even if it initially seems like they are just another plot device or ratings gimmick to reach the sex and violence quota HBO or the historical show genre requires: the completely fictional Atia-Antony romance for example is bound to be seen by some viewers as just an excuse for Polly Walker and James Purefoy to undress and for some others as the emotional core of many an episode and reason to watch all on its own. But the reason for such a coupling, courtesy of the creators, becomes clear as Antony is forced, deep into Season 2, into marrying Octavia, his lover Atia’s daughter and his political partner Octavian’s sister, which is something that really happened and its significance is augmented by Antony and Atia’s romantic past (as well as Octavian wanting to eradicate his feelings of awkwardness at the sight of his on-off nemesis/ally fornicating with his widowed mother). Additionally, one would think that Antony will resume his affair with Atia (which of course he does) and keep his marriage to Octavia white but in an almost “The Sopranos”-esque way, when you thought you had seen the worst of his lecherous behavior, he doesn’t really have any qualms about sampling Octavia! But the show’s totally purposeful adaptation or storytelling choices don’t end there: Having Servilia, Caesar’s scorned lover, as the mastermind behind his eventual assassination may feel like it’s trivializing the matter or downplaying the political reasons and envy of the other power-players in the Senate behind the hideous act but it really just successfully ties that development to earlier as well as future ones (after the deed, Servilia emerges as one of the most cold-blooded and enduring villains of the show) and adds a necessary level of suspense to perhaps one of the most widely known events in antiquity. Finally, when Levi, the brother of the series resident assassin, the Jew Timon (whom Lee Boardman makes absolutely likeable), is introduced into the show and starts lecturing his brother on his servitude, the episode’s pace seems to slow down but the character is not without purpose: in a world that reeks of filth and is in desperate need of a new set of values and keeping in mind that Levi comes from the East, the role signifies the new Judeo-Christian ethics that are about to dawn. Moreover, Timon is given a chance to shine by rebelling against Atia, the object of his affections, who treats him like dirt but also occasionally rewards with sex, as the fiery, mean female that she is (so different than his kind, modest wife, perhaps the show’s attempt at subtly exploring why men are attracted by b*tches). The series doesn’t spell all this out or patronizes the viewer by telling him what to think of the seemingly random psychological stuff but tremendous writing, aided by amazing acting, helps the material jump off the screen and gain a new-found importance all in itself.

Sense and Senselessness

Writing in “The Borgias” could be said to have a thing or two to envy from “Rome” but the show is much more idiosyncratic and darkly humorous and that is a pro important enough to compensate for some of its other flaws in that department: creator Neil Jordan is absolutely fascinated by some of the broader ideas and the general atmosphere of the late Medieval/early Renaissance times (actually, much more than the specific details of the Borgia reign, that would be, nonetheless, more than enough to spark intrigue for any television show to mine) and his writing reflects that and though it stays on course, going through the most important events during the Borgia papacy, Jordan’s focus is on symbolism and modern themes and references. Jordan successfully structures the show on a triangular axis: First of all, he makes sure he can give his leading man Jeremy Irons better and more challenging material than it is readily apparent. Let me explain: the show may frequently seem like it’s neglecting him or giving him lighter and easier stuff to handle than the heavy drama or juicy intrigue that falls on the shoulders his co-cast-members. Irons’ Rodrigo often feels (and is) aloof, goofy and not even the most lucid or brilliant man in the room (during an age that television is dominated by super-intelligent and insightful antiheroes, such as Nucky Thompson in “Boardwalk Empire”, Walter White in “Breaking Bad” or Tyrion Lannister in “Game of Thrones”) and the reason behind it is quite simple: Rodrigo Borgia is just a man in power and “The Borgias” is a convincing and realistic portrait of a man who only partially merits his highest of positions, like many modern politicians. Secondly, Jordan and the show rely very much on the chemistry-filled relationship between siblings Cesare and Lucrezia to provide much-needed emotion in a universe that is populated by characters that you otherwise don’t really care about. Though it has been hinted from the very beginning of the series that this relationship is indecent (and Season 3 promises to deliver hard proof), the sibling relationship is still sweet and touching, as the two young people try to navigate a cruel world that doesn’t forgive privilege or their father’s duplicitous power-grab and that has forced them to distrust everyone but blood. And finally, Jordan is very apparently titillated at the thought of an era so productive in incomparable monuments art and even technology, yet so wantonly bloodthirsty, greedy, uncivilized and explosive. Though I’ve often complained that Jordan’s Renaissance world doesn’t seem downtrodden and volatile enough, it is sensible that everything is seen through the eyes of the Borgias, secluded as they are in their palatial sphere, their bubble that substitutes poverty with suffocating emptiness, actual danger with sexual or political intrigue, real problems with rich people problems and is, as a result, occasionally filled with elitism, irresponsibility, debauchery, indifference and a casual, frivolous disregard for human life. The show’s formula is an overwhelmingly successful one to be sure, even if the rating don’t instantly reflect that, and despite the fact that one can easily poke holes in some of the show’s secondary plot-threads and characters, “The Borgias” is, quite like “Rome”, the thinking man’s historical show and the feeling man’s also as Jordan’s crafted characters not only believably human but also surprisingly humane: like him, most of his characters are more often than not gentle-seeming, soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but that shouldn't fool us into forgetting that all of them conceal depths of megalomania and bloodlust and are capable of horrific decisions and deeds. Fortunately, the show lets you judge them by your own tastes and criteria and that is to an extent achieved by making them eternally likeable. Since we are allowed to spend much time with these people, thank God that Jordan’s made them approachable, charming and oddly relatable. One of the weakest parts of the show’s writing, its plotting, is also alleviated by fine character work and by the fact that Jordan, primarily a filmmaker at heart, sees the series as a whole (and it makes much more sense for us to see it as one, too): Season 1 may have felt serene and less eventful in comparison to Season 2 (and the latter could be eclipsed by Season 3, if promotional material is any indication) but seeing it as just the introductory chapter in a larger saga about the Borgia family, one understands that Jordan’s labored to give as varied as possible a flavor to each one of the show’s seasons, struggling to keep every moment relatively fresh and from becoming repetitive.

Accurate Inaccuracy

Though it could be said that every historical dramatization is similar in the way it handles historical fact (mainly by either omitting characters and events or rearranging them or even outright fabricating others), “Rome” and “The Borgias” are eerily similar in that respect. Both shows know exactly how many real characters are indispensable and can be successfully incorporated into the plot and how many are dramatically uninteresting and would merely drag the show down and overcomplicate the plot without the show being able to capitalize on that and feature resolution (though “The Borgias” has so far made some sacrifices in characters that I wouldn’t have minded seeing appear in some form in future episodes, just for the sake of having them). Various anti-Caesar conspirators or Brutus’ wife Porcia (whose role in the assassination plot is somewhat reincarnated in Brutus’ mother, Servilia) in “Rome” and Adriana de Mila, Rodrigo’s cousin and Lucrezia’s governess as well as mother-in-law to Rodrigo’s lover Giulia Farnese, and miscellaneous cardinals in “The Borgias” are only some of the characters both shows choose to forget about so that it can focus on what they deem expedient, namely advancing their plots and developing their main characters. “Rome” and “The Borgias” are even similar in how they choose to include fictional figures in almost every major plotline or to set it up in a way that even people that know the real story can be interested to watch despite their knowledge of the outcome. Sometimes successfully (every single fictional character in “Rome”, a largely fictionalized Micheletto in “The Borgias”) and sometimes not (Ursula Bonadeo, the Pallavicini brothers in “The Borgias”) both shows indulge in that device a lot and at least craft a version of history that doesn’t resemble any previous one and is hard to imitate.

*Banner to Come*
The Borgias vs The Borgias: Then (1981) and Now (2011) . . .
THE BORGIAS (2011) vs THE BORGIAS (1981):

Part 1: There Are Borgias and Borgias

Renaissance in the ‘80s

As one of the very first complete adaptations of the Borgia saga (only a mediocre -yet well-produced by ‘70s’ standards- French miniseries, “Les Borgia Ou Le Sang Dore", and a few thematic movies, such as Orson Welles’ “Prince of Foxes” had preceded it), BBC’s “The Borgias” seemed to have at least two advantages: 1) a largely unexplored and unclaimed territory, ripe for an artistic adaptation free from the fear of comparisons and 2) BBC’s previous experience with well-scripted and imaginatively-adapted historical drama, mostly apparent in beloved classic “I, Claudius”. Too bad the miniseries didn’t seem to exploit any of those advantages. While the show’s level of production quality isn’t as awful as its more than 30 years of age would have you believe (the aforementioned “I, Claudius” would froth at the mouth with envy at the thought of shooting in original Italian locales), its writing is dreadfully lackluster, rarely inspired, excessively unfocused and laughably loose and rather un-dramatic so to speak (more on that in a later part of this comparative review). The show’s nevertheless not without some merit or entertainment value, especially if one is to watch it less seriously and more as a cult, archival piece of television, and one of the creative choices that are more interesting to today’s viewer is the portrayal of the main characters, namely Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia (due to the miniseries format, much like “Los Borgia”, “The Borgias” doesn’t really bother to develop Juan as a character and he is relegated here to a mere side-note), not only with regards to writing but also to casting. Choosing Sicilian-born Adolfo Celi, Englishman Oliver Cotton and Australian Anne Louise Lambert for the roles respectively, BBC’s “The Borgias” (from here on in, simply referred as “
1981 Borgias”) are a reasonably colorful and unique trio with chemistry (kudos to the show for going with refreshingly idiosyncratic performers) that mostly do well in their parts but ultimately fail, either due to poor characterization or controversial acting choices, to present consistent and consistently engaging characters, especially in comparison to Jeremy Irons, Francois Arnaud and Holliday Grainger.

Lust in Translation

Mostly known as Bond villain Emilio Largo in “Thunderball” (one of the best Bond villains in one of the best Bond films, in my opinion), the late Adolfo Celi was an accomplished Italian character actor seemingly perfect for the role of protagonist Rodrigo Borgia in BBC’s adaptation of the historical tale (and it is a wildly successful and widely tried practice for film character actors to enjoy renewed fame and lead-star status and thrive on television). His interesting physicality, namely his obese figure, not only meant that his presence on-screen was instantly noticeable and effortlessly imposing (especially clothed in the voluminous white, gold or crimson papal robes) but also, judging by Pope Alexander’s surviving portraits and depictions in Renaissance art, he was considered relatively historically accurate (definitely much more than Jeremy Irons in the role): his dark complexion, his crooked nose, his full lips, his round head were all there. More importantly, Celi also, just by standing motionless in the middle of the frame and looking at his co-stars, felt extremely vivacious, irreverent and comfortable in his power, while his eyes revealed the subterranean presence of a sacrilegious sense of humor, irony and sardonic opportunism. If one was to watch “1981 Borgias” without sound then he would definitely think that he had just witnessed a master of the craft at work: naturally expressive features and body language, a wonderful temperament and a nasty glint in the eye that betrays an incontrollable hunger to consume all around him. Alas, Celi’s authentic-looking Mediterranean face, like everything in the world of the Borgias, came with a steep price: a heavy Sicilian accent. I’ve often complained about John Doman’s straight, resolutely American accent but Celi’s by comparison actually makes me grateful for Fontana’s lead: Celi’s Rodrigo is often unintelligible, especially when he talks at a rapid pace or when he has to act furious, which is quite a lot of the time, and makes the man look like he’s having a bad stroke speaking in an insensible delirium or worse like a parody of English-speaking actors trying to put on an inept Italian accent while speaking English. While there’s definitely an interesting metallic, raspy quality to his voice and his intonation would otherwise be fully appropriately to convey the character’s lifetime of power-struggles and sinful pleasure and an absolutely corrupted existence, his accent doesn’t at all facilitate the often artless dialogue, which tends towards heavy exposition trying to set up the plot and its context, especially in the initial episodes, and Celi is fully unsuitable for this crucial function. That’s a difficult disadvantage to overlook and a real shame, since Celi is an otherwise unique and inspired casting choice, the first to be allowed to fully incarnate the character’s deep, relentless megalomania and creepiness. Doman, Lluis Homar in “Los Borgia” and certainly Jeremy Irons in “2011 Borgias” all have several different things to offer to the interpretation of the character but Celi provides something none else has so far: a display of total depravity. In fact, though every actor so far cast in the role has a large enough age difference with the actresses portraying the Pope’s mistress Giulia Farnese, Celi is the only one to be able to fully communicate the unholy monstrosity of such a union. Perhaps the most consistent among his co-stars in the embodiment of his part and fully capable of shedding light on new sides of the character in every episode and naturally evolving in the role without the considerable gaps in writing becoming obvious, it is only a pity Celi wasn’t coached or at least dubbed in the role.

Extra(-Extra-Extra)-Fine Cotton

The weirdest and, oddly, the most successful casting choice at the same time (out of the three leading stars) in “1981 Borgias” is definitely Oliver Cotton as Cesare: the prolific British actor was already approaching his late thirties (he was 37 years old, actually) by the time he had to play an 18-year old Cesare (but who really looked their age during the 80s?) and that, along with his sonorous, theatrical delivery of his lines and his enormous, voluminous hairstyles (that get progressively bigger as Cesare renounces his vows as cardinal and evolves into Machiavelli’s Prince) all contributed to his character feeling larger-than-life (but in a resolutely different way than one would imagine the real Borgias being larger-than-life). Cotton is a fine actor, that goes without saying, and possesses a very interesting and expressive face (much like Celi) but his inability to restrain himself and his constant intensity create a Cesare that’s only marginally darker and more menacing than a bad Mel Brooks parody. But Cotton’s Cesare has also positive qualities: he may be prone to over-acting but, for better or for worse, he’s dominant in his scenes and his voice seems enough to bully others into submission, which I guess makes for a fairly satisfactory portrait of a man extremely hungry for power, as well as a serial womanizer and brilliant strategist, and also Cotton’s Cesare has heaps of chemistry with Lambert’s Lucrezia (definitely not more though than the chemistry Arnaud and Grainger wonderfully share). In the end, I imagine it isn’t such a negative thing to be as memorable as Cotton in the role even if his scenery-chewing may become tiresome after a while but his is still an all-consuming, tour-de-force performance that doesn’t totally lack nuance, which is made especially apparent during the last two episodes, after Rodrigo’s powers wane and he dies. Much like Celi, who could have proven definitive in the role (and he certainly had the eye-catching physique for it), if Cotton had tempered his performance he would have crafted a much more believable and complicated, as well as less obviously bloodthirsty and ruthless character that could have been a much more effective Cesare.

Sleeping Beauty

Last -and sadly least, for that matter-, Anne Louise Lambert’s Lucrezia is the most quiet and unassuming member of the ”1981 Borgias” trio of protagonists (though I could argue that such a show needed such a heroine, if only for some much needed balance). While certainly likeable in the part and proving an able actress when given the right material (which is rather rare in the miniseries but it does happen), Lambert does her best with what she’s given. Her Lucrezia isn’t a real flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all character: she’s just a peaceful break from Cesare and Rodrigo’s nefariousness, after the viewers had enough of their shameless plotting or nauseating debauchery. Whether that mostly good-hearted, well-mannered being is an accurate portrayal of the historical Lucrezia is, for me, beside the point: I don’t relish watching her Lucrezia and I’d much rather have Cotton’s Cesare and Celi’s Rodrigo arguing interminably, the viewer trying to guess who will raise his voice higher or faint of high blood pressure, rather than watch Lambert’s saintly good, innocent Lucrezia silently weave something (not a plot, regrettably). That may be more a problem of writing rather than the actress’ interpretation and I shouldn’t blame it all on poor Lambert but she definitely -however seldom- is gifted with an opportunity to develop a Lucrezia that has a bit more bite in her but unfortunately she never goes for it, looking as if she’s ready to take a nap on the papal throne her father has temporarily entrusted her with. Also, it can be said that the writing doesn’t provide her with the right female partners: Adriana de Mila, Giulia Farnese and Vanozza Cattanei all appear in “1981 Borgias” in only a small capacity (Adriana and Giulia especially are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them parts), which could partially explain why Lambert’s Lucrezia is mostly boring but the show opts instead for an interesting rendition of Sancia, here unabashedly sexual and dangerous, played by Eleanor David, one of the best secondary cast-members, and though the two have ample shared screen-time, Lucrezia’s portrayal doesn’t at all benefit from the dark influence of the Neapolitan princess. Grainger’s Lucrezia may be too much for some, but I happen to believe that she’s just as cutthroat and graceful as she should be to constitute and entertaining character to follow, as well as a fair enough portrayal of the character (fair, not historically accurate, mind you), a fact indirectly proven by how much viewers seem to like her (if Jordan and Grainger had made Lucrezia completely unlikeable or merely a pitiful victim, it still wouldn’t have done justice to her historical counterpart). Ultimately though, the writers and Lambert choose to create a Lucrezia that’s as far removed as possible from the lethal seductress public opinion has associated her with (though “2011 Borgias” still has the best of both worlds) and that’s a commendable feat after taking into account that at least her stint on the papal throne and her controversial first birth are featured.
THE BORGIAS (2011) vs THE BORGIAS (1981):

Part 2: The Writing on the Wal(rus)

Good for Learning, Bad for Fun

As “Los Borgia” triumphantly proved, you don’t need multiple seasons or even at least a longer miniseries format to create a comprehensive, engaging and satisfactorily detailed version of the tale of the Borgia family. In its well-structured, well-produced and immaculately acted 3-hour span “Los Borgia” managed to not only narrate the best yet, most complete and fairly accurate retelling of the saga but to also ooze emotion, establish atmosphere and achieve cinematic flow and natural pace while adapting an enormous and intricate story with the least possible sacrifices (yes, even if it only mentioned the apocalyptic French Invasion, “Los Borgia” didn’t lack in tension and drama). Thus, when one hears of a 10-episode miniseries on the same subject, one at least hopes for the same level (if not a higher one) of success in offering an all-encompassing story, able to deliver both on the level of the logistical including of all the significant events in the history of the Borgia dynasty and drama-wise offer a consistently gripping and entertaining story. Unfortunately, “The Borgias”, while it mostly succeeds when it comes to the former, leaves much to be desired with regards to the latter (while the exact opposite can be said of Showtime’s “The Borgias”), which is such a pity, especially given that its controversial casting choices had already robbed it of a chance to be considered a classic BBC period drama and perhaps better writing could have balanced that flaw out.

Inaccuracy and Inadequacy

While a reasonably complicated, realistically rendered and multi-faceted presentation of any story inspired by mankind’s historical past should be an absolute prerequisite for any cinematic or television drama (and something that Showtime’s “The Borgias” took some time to fully realize), a writer’s instinct able to differentiate between shocking historical fact (or factoid) and impossible-to-translate-on-screen-belief-system-or-geopolitical-situation is also an essential skill, that facilitates him to focus on the necessary things, to spark rewarding and compelling drama and ultimately provide the viewer with enough fascination to research history for himself. Total, uncompromising historical accuracy isn’t only unfeasible, it is undesirable, at least when it comes to a period drama. Even a story so wonderfully intricate, sexy, violent, sinful and dramatic as the tale of the Borgia clan needs a lot of adaptation to succeed on-screen and at least there BBC’s “The Borgias” is mostly passable. Throughout its 10 episodes, the miniseries starts with an efficient depiction of the corrupt post-Innocent VIII conclave, moves swiftly onto the French Invasion of the Italian Peninsula and subsequently briefly deals with Juan Borgia’s death (and all that before the credits of episode 3 roll). From that point on, the show’s pretty much about the rise of Cesare Borgia and the fall of Pope Alexander VI, while Lucrezia’s second marriage takes up most of the character’s screentime. Dying early into episode 9, the rest of the miniseries deals with the aftermath of the Pope’s death and the subsequent military and political struggles that brought about Cesare’s downfall. Even if the feud against Borgia nemesis Girolamo Savonarola is a notable omission (there’s nevertheless a cameo by a hermit that preaches Savonarola-like sermons as the French arsenal marches through Italy which could be considered a wink to the obstinate Florentine friar), one can tell the show’s adeptly structured to be able to encompass the most significant occurrences during the Borgia papacy even if some of them (Lucrezia’s first marriage, the afore-mentioned Juan’s demise) don’t get the screen-time they would otherwise deserve, had the series been a full one rather than a miniseries. The writing’s foremost disadvantage and the viewers' easiest complaint in that respect isn’t that it doesn’t provide us with an enlightening enough account of the Borgia reign, because it rather does: the series’ problem is that the various historical events aren’t imaginatively or thematically bound together and even if one was to overlook the considerable pace and transition issues, one would still find it problematic to be drawn in week-after-week (or even if the hourly installments were meant to be consumed one immediately after another) by an episodic narrative without its own force of propulsion. The writers would have been better off if they had crafted, in effect, ten hourly thematic mini-movies, each one with its own beginning, middle and end, stakes, suspense and purpose, even if accuracy was partly sacrificed as a result or if some creative rearranging of events was applied.

Character Flaw

Even if I held the show’s plotting choices in higher esteem than their lackluster result would have me believe (most episodes had their fair share of developments, yes, but many of them lacked proper tension and climaxes), I would still be willing to forgive that immensely important disadvantage if the miniseries took a more character-oriented approach to writing, if the characters’ psyches was examined in detail even in an obvious or less intelligent way. Granted, BBC’s “The Borgias” has to tackle many more roles and has much more history to go through in the space of a single 50-min episode than Showtime’s show, but every viewer would still be satisfied if the British miniseries opted to only explore its three main characters, Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia (after all, every single Borgia story adaptation is all about them in the end and every other character is only coincidentally explored if at all). Of course, the miniseries, close-ended format meant that at least some amount of resolution would be provided for storylines involving the three main characters and at least that happens, giving out the illusion that there are arcs and that characters end up in a different place than where they were originally introduced to us. While each of the three main character and their respective performers have their unique brand of acting style and conducting themselves on-screen, ultimately that’s where characterization stops and we at best view snapshots of their emotional journey. Cesare, the most idiosyncratic and present main character as well as the real protagonist as it becomes apparent halfway through the series, doesn’t have fluctuations in his palette of sentiments. Perhaps his focused, unwavering ambition that doesn’t allow for much emotion is rather appropriate for Cesare’s inner strength that doesn’t really allow for the inevitable self-doubt, sense of loss of loved ones and human intimacy but the writing needn’t make Cesare actively exhibit these sides of his characters, merely imply them. His tenderness and love for his sister Lucrezia is in the end the only impression the character leaves us with, even if we’ve seen the “historical badass with a single redeeming aspect” trope many times before. Celi’s Rodrigo is the most multi-sided character (What does that say for the show’s writing when a frequently unintelligible character feels the most realistic and makes the most sense drama-wise?) yet I somehow hesitate to call him “complicated” as I don’t believe he fully merits that compliment: he’s a power-hungry, manipulative old lech but his great love for his children and his grief for the death of Juan humanizes him and reveals a sensitivity that’s mostly lacking in Cesare. Last and least, Lucrezia’s character carries no interest whatsoever and she seems to lack personality, even when she finds herself in a position of power or has reasons to display animosity towards her family. The characters that get some considerable screen-time outside this trio are very few and the most successful are Giuliano della Rovere (courtesy more of a very convincingly determined and obstinate Alfred Burke rather than the writing’s work), Barbara Shelley’s Vanozza that is eternally likeable even if she lacks real bite, much like her daughter Lucrezia, and Eleanor David’s Sancia, who is the ultimate scarlet woman, a wholly successful character due to time allowed by the script and David’s gusto.

Words Don't Solve Problems

And if BBC’s “The Borgias” doesn’t have the benefit of expedient, intricate or stylish plotting or deep characterization (and Showtime’s “The Borgias” may not be stellar in either sense but it is always far above average and often surprisingly potent), then there’s only department of writing that could potentially emerge as its redeeming quality: dialogue. One of the greatest strengths of writing in Showtime’s show, whether you like the “The Borgias” extremely idiosyncratic, archaic-sounding, show-specific dialogue or not -I myself find the show’s language eloquent and lyrical, yet laconic-, you have to admit it’s one of the show’s most obvious trademarks (and kudos to the actors for making it sound as natural as possible). Well, while BBC’s “The Borgias” can, oddly, be imaginative and mostly efficient in that department, even the best of lines are ruined either by some of the cast-members’ heavy accents (either their own ones or pretentious ones employed to make acting more authentic to ridiculous results) or awful delivery (the actresses playing Adriana de Mila and Giulia Farnese are so bad at enunciation that they need to be seen to be believed). In a show so desperately in need of something to keep you gripped or at least mildly amused while watching one unimaginative, drab episode succeed another, some dark humor or keen sense of irony to spice things up would be much appreciated and unfortunately BBC’s show falls unexpectedly short even on that. So, in the end, unlike what articles of the time would have you believe, the reason the show failed miserably to catch the audience’s attention wasn’t its woefully lackluster production values when compared to its supreme ITV competition “Brideshead Revisited” (one of the best regarded miniseries ever -if not the best- and quite ironically the show that established Jeremy Irons as a star): the show’s writing had nothing new to tell about the story or to add to the historical show genre. It’s a great pity the show couldn’t capitalize on “I, Claudius” success or follow the same pattern of brilliant adaptation because production-wise the show was a considerable upgrade that doesn’t seem all that laughable even by today’s standards.
THE BORGIAS (2011) vs THE BORGIAS (1981):

Part 3: International Geographic

A Script! A Script! My Production for a Script!

While the massive historical epics of the ‘60s -the kind of films one may find everywhere on TV come Easter time- were a marvel in technical achievement (back then, recreating an era meant actually building something comparable to size to the original and populating it with enough extras to fill an actual town), the television products that tried to bring to the small screen the same kind of viewing experience mostly failed. Except one or two high-end products, such as ITV’s seminal “The Prisoner” and “Brideshead Revisited”, television productions in general were nowhere near as good. To be able to convince us today that television can be as ambitious and cinematic in terms of sheer size as “Game of Thrones” would have us believe, television seemed to struggle for a lot of time. That is sadly true also for BBC’s “The Borgias” and the show didn’t really deserve any Crafts Emmys (at least not compared to its ITV competitor and superior in every possible respect, the aforementioned “Brideshead Revisited”) BUT the show also wasn’t that rare gem that had the benefit of such a strong and timeless script rendering its sad excuse of a production negligible: unlike “I, Claudius” which was exactly that, “The Borgias” had an astonishingly passable production but lacked the script. Still, one considerable advantage “The Borgias” possessed over the hallowed masterpiece that is “I, Claudius” still existed: location shooting.

The Italian Yob

Generally speaking, I am quite skeptical on the subject of shooting something in its (or what can closely resemble its) natural environment. There are cases when such a decision’s not only extremely successful (“Rome”, for example, took great advantage of some of its authentic Roman settings, as well as the warm Mediterranean sun which availed the show of a unique lushness artificial lighting perhaps couldn’t generate) but serves multiple purposes: to help ground the high-fantasy genre show “Game of Thrones” is, it took filming on-location in Malta, Morocco and Ireland, all of which provided the show with real, lived-in backgrounds ripe for digital or physical enhancement if the need arose, a wonderful, much less fake and costly alternative to building a universe of such size within the boundaries of a studio backlot. But there are also cases that this practice largely fails or doesn’t really make much difference: after having watched 6 episodes of Season 2 of “Borgia”, boasting that a considerable part of its filming took place in villas and castles in Italy, I am quite shocked by how mundane the final result is and how much hit-and-miss this choice feels. While interiors, most often an incoherent blend of actual indoors of palaces (either in the Czech Republic or Italy) and artfully designed sets, in the sense that the viewer can definitely spot which settings are real and which aren’t, are satisfactory, most exterior shots of the real buildings feel out-of-place for the era the show’s set in (buildings that should have been only decades old feel like centuries old, no VFX correction having been applied to hide their true age and most of them feeling like uninhabitable historical monuments or museums). Luckily, BBC’s “The Borgias” falls on the former category and its use of real locations is mostly apt and refreshing in terms of the show’s visual language (given that it’s otherwise studio-bound just like “I, Claudius”). The emerald Italian countryside provided the perfect palette for the show’s few crowd or action scenes while real castles, fortresses and towers offer us some nice establishing shots (and due to the video’s poor quality or to the directors’ adeptness at the clever maneuverings of the lenses they don’t show their age). The few indoors shots on real locations feel much more flavored and add another layer of grandness and spaciousness to the show, especially in comparison to the paperboard sets, which are nicely constructed and decorated but nevertheless feel too small and fail to convey any real atmosphere of wealth and luxury (Rodrigo’s bedroom feels only marginally larger or more ornate than a monk’s cell). To compare the show to Showtime’s “The Borgias” would be unfavorable for it and would only repeat the self-evident: the newer show has an unassailable advantage in every aspect of production, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to claim that the BBC show’s production isn’t even half as bad as its age would lead you to think.

Undress for Success

When it comes to costume design on the BBC miniseries, I have to admit I regard it as maybe the most uniformly successful aspect of its production. Of course, costumes in BBC’s “The Borgias” can’t compare to Pescucci’s designs on Showtime’s series (and I’ve grown tired of repeating that) but if the image of the old series could undergo a digital restoration, so that certain aesthetic details were much more easily discernible, costumes in BBC’s show would definitely be up there with the costumes in “Los Borgia” and even rival Sergio Ballo’s deliberately simplistic creations in Tom Fontana’s “Borgia”. Female wear here is adorned with subtle touches and is more than satisfactorily detailed, while also complimenting of the women’ silhouettes, instead of merely adding volume and looking cumbersome. What I also found particularly well-designed and varied are the various headpieces (Adriana de Mila wears an especially interesting one during a celebration in episode 1). While colors lack vibrancy and are relatively flat and muted (but that could be due to the aged image’s quality rather than a conscious choice by the costume designer), female costumes look authentically aged and are realistically rich (instead of over-the-top sumptuous), as if they come from a museum. The Pope’s regalia are quite impressive here as well (except the triple crown papal tiara that’s seemingly made out of paper and cheap beads), also thanks to Celi’s imposing figure, whom they especially compliment when he’s out of his liturgical wear and in some purple or gold, extremely voluminous and opulent robes. Otherwise, soldiers, servants, dignitaries and cardinals are satisfactorily dressed and even if they look somewhat dull and unimaginative, the show still manages to present an effectively recreated world. My favorite costume design has to be for Cesare’s character: he starts out in much more ordinary wear (still, he dons some fairly nicely colored jackets, pants and codpieces) or crimson cardinal’s robes (that Cotton -much like Arnaud- drags to signify the character’s displeasure with his office and role in the Borgia family) only to afterwards dress in appropriately and darkly flamboyant black and silver capes as the character morphs into Machiavelli’s “Prince”. That’s when Cesare’s hairstyles start becoming more and more ridiculous (at some point he looks like a gigantic wolf or a black lion), without that detracting from the overall menace the character exudes. Hairstyles in the show are generally understated and, sadly, somewhat repetitive and instead of opting for the amazingly intricate hair designs in Showtime’s “The Borgias” that are perhaps one of the most heightened aesthetic choices in the show, BBC’s miniseries goes for the expected, meaning perfect curls, loose locks and hairnets, failing to visualize the character’s emotional as well as natural growth and aging.

Remarkably Unremarkable

Other than the frequent on-location filming and the above-average costume department, the BBC show is the very definition of unremarkable mediocrity (I would have to call it bad if its age wasn’t taken into account). Music in the series has some good moments but is most often unoriginal and commonplace, while the title theme aims to sound grand and menacing which I guess it succeeds in but ultimately ends up sounding like something you’ve heard thousand times before. Cinematography and lighting ranges from downright bad (even given its video format, the show could have looked somewhat more unique and idiosyncratic -“I, Claudius” was shot completely on video but had some interesting close-ups to enhance the performances) to tolerably mediocre (outdoors scenes fare far better, feeling much more cinematic and lush yet still pedestrian). Editing is surprisingly adept, given the huge volume of narrative time it has to deal with and make sense of, and even though the show’s plotting is poor and basic rules of television drama and tension have been neglected, not even a single scene feels terribly superfluous (which makes me want to repeat my disappointment with the script that doomed this otherwise auspicious and respectable production).
THE BORGIAS (2011) vs THE BORGIAS (1981):

Part 4:
The Good, the Bad and the Abominable

The Cast of Casts

Regardless of where a production might choose to film or in what language or what version of the Borgia lore it is going to embrace, the most important decision is casting the main and secondary roles. That is definitely also my most favorite part in judging different Borgia adaptations and a key factor in my decision of what to watch in general. Though Jeremy Irons and the ensemble cast of “The Borgias”, that includes many familiar faces (among others, Colm Feore, Joanne Whalley, Steven Berkoff, Gina McKee and Derek Jacobi) are, in my opinion, the most well-known names to have embodied the parts so far, fame ultimately has nothing to do with handpicking able actors to portray the roles (Fontana’s “Borgia” has struck gold with choosing largely unknown actors and trusting them with pivotal roles, such as Marta Gastini and Diarmuid Noyes as Giulia and Alessandro Farnese respectively). The main trio in BBC’s “The Borgias” is a mixed bag but some secondary roles, even if they aren’t particularly well-written, fare much better as well as being relatively familiar: other than Celi, whom I otherwise knew as villain Emilio Largo in the James Bond film “Thunderball”, and Diane Fletcher (as Caterina Sforza) who was also Francis Urquhart’s elegantly malevolent wife Elizabeth in my beloved “House of Cards” trilogy, familiar faces that turn up in the show are Maurice O’Connell (“Widows”) as Michelotto, Charles Kay (“I, Claudius”, “Edge of Darkness”) as Cardinal d’Amboise, horror icon Barbara Shelley (“Dracula: Prince of Darkness”) as Vanozza and Nicholas Le Prevost (“Return to Cranford”) as Gian Paolo Baglioni. Otherwise the cast is comprised of theater and television veterans of the time, that I unfortunately couldn’t identify just by watching them pop up on-screen.

The (Mostly) Good

Other than the main trio, there’s a quintet of characters that are central or at least prominently appear in every Borgia adaptation: Juan Borgia (most successfully embodied by David Oakes in “The Borgias” and Stanley Weber in “Borgia”, an entertaining sidenote in “Los Borgia”), Giulia Farnese (a tour-de-force performance by Marta Gastini in “Borgia” and a nuanced, understated and deliberately ambiguous one in “The Borgias”, courtesy of the ethereal Lotte Verbeek, while practically a non-entity in “Los Borgia”), Vanozza Cattanei (Joanne Whalley and Assumpta Serna in “The Borgias” and “Borgia” respectively, while the revered veteran Angela Molina holds the small part in “Los Borgia”), Miguel de Corella (Sean Harris is the only one worth mentioning here, while the actor in “Los Borgia” wasn’t bad either) and Giuliano Della Rovere (my favourite is Eusebio Poncela in “Los Borgia”, followed by extremely able performers Colm Feore and Dejan Cukic in “The Borgias” and “Borgia” respectively). Almost as if they are functioning like stock characters in this version of the Borgia saga, Juan is the dark-skinned Bad Son (to Cesare’s white-skinned Good Son), Giulia is the gold-digging Mistress, Vanozza is the Stoic Mother/Discarded Mistress, Michelotto is the Cool Assassin/Enforcer and Giuliano Della Rovere is the Stern Antagonist. Unfortunately, most of them in BBC’s “The Borgias” never get away from their stock character categorization, while some of them, Juan and Giulia especially, never even get to be fun within the constraints of that category and are little more than cameos. Played by an apparently talentless and flavorless performer, Juan’s main role here is to antagonize Cesare, a rivalry that is only fleetingly depicted (though Juan’s camaraderie with Prince Djem is included, which is surprising given how underdeveloped the character ultimately is) while the small impact his death has is only thanks to Celi’s terrifically powerful grief. The actress playing Giulia is not only entirely forgettable but also downright irritating, so it’s rather good that she doesn’t appear all that often (and it goes without saying that both she and the actor playing Juan can’t compare to David Oakes and Lotte Verbeek from the Showtime series). The other actors fare significantly better in the role: Barbara Shelley exudes warmth and motherly affection as Vanozza, even though she lacked screentime with Lucrezia (most of her scenes though, opposite Celi’s Rodrigo and Cotton’s Cesare, are episode highlights for me since, thankfully, the three performers shared some amount of chemistry) while Maurice O’Connell as Michelotto is introduced to the show under suspiciously similar circumstances to Sean Harris’ Micheletto in “The Borgias” (Michelotto here is initially employed by the Orsini as well and flips after getting caught enacting an attack against the family by Cesare). O’Connell has a villain’s face (he was the main antagonist in ‘80s’ ITV thriller “Widows”, playing the criminal husband of Ann Mitchell’s Dolly Rawlins) and is more than satisfactorily menacing here, though the journey of the character in Showtime’s “The Borgias” is much more substantial and the sheer force a single look from Sean Harris can unleash is just not present here. Last but by no means least, Alfred Burke is the real standout as stiff-upper-lip Borgia nemesis Giuliano Della Rovere. The character is less stereotypically portrayed than one would expect: Burke’s Della Rovere is more obsessed with leading the Church than pious or sanctimonious (as Feore’s Della Rovere) and feels much more versed in the politics of Italy, as well as coming off as different to Celi’s Rodrigo as possible. Burke here also gets to play and relish the moments that Della Rovere finally attains the papacy and turns on Cesare and if there is one cast-member of the BBC miniseries that could take on the respective performer from Showtime’s show and stand his ground in comparison that is definitely Burke, whose character doesn’t get as fleshed out or as interestingly dark as Feore’s but still benefits from consistent characterization and a confident performance.

The (Not So) Bad

With the notable exception of Girolamo Savonarola, whose role as a Borgia detractor-turned-archenemy is even highlighted in the 2-hour “Los Borgia” movie, all the other peripheral characters, tertiary in importance to the Borgia saga are also present here (and played by actors that are mostly well-chosen). The enemies-turned-frenemies of the Borgia family, the Kings of France, Charles VIII and Louis XII are both featured prominently, albeit for a single episode each, the former presented as a ridiculously grotesque, incapacitated, and downright irritating moron (and even more maniacal that Michel Muller in the role or even Augustus Prew as the obnoxious Alfonso) and the latter bland, pragmatic but, in the end, forgettable. Perotto (Paolo’s must more historically accurate equivalent in BBC’s “The Borgias”), here portrayed as a priest-secretary loyal to Rodrigo, is also successfully introduced long before he becomes important to the plot as Lucrezia’s likeable lover and Cesare’s lamentable victim. Johann Burchard, ably played by Ralph Nossek, holds the interesting role not only of the Vatican’s Papal Master of Ceremonies but also the show’s occasional narrator (the voiceovers occur as the character’s composing his fabled chronicles that still survive), a suspiciously similar device to Derek Jacobi’s in “I, Claudius”, helping to introduce certain plot points and clarify how much time has passed between episodes. Clive Merrison creates a wonderfully docile and slimy Ascanio Sforza that is ready to switch sides at any times without ever obviously betraying either of his masters. Siblings Alfonso and Sancia of Aragon are also extremely well portrayed by Ryan Michael and Eleanor David: the former is a decent husband to Lucrezia and potent rival of Cesare’s while Sancia serves not only as a friend and counsel to Lucrezia but also as the show’s comment on the Renaissance morals, not quite a fully realistic character but still one that largely senses the depravity of her world and functions as an aggressive satire and conscience to those around her. Finally, Kevin Lloyd and Nicholas Le Prevost as Cesare’s recurring henchmen Ramiro Lorca and Gian-Paolo Baglioni respectively are efficiently menacing and serious-looking.

…And the Abominable

For an ‘80s BBC show (the very heyday of British television), “The Borgias” definitely does have its share of disappointing actors too (at a time when classically-trained stage actors acquired great fame and accolades for their small-screen appearances). Chief among them: Anna Korwin as Adriana de Mila apparently plays without any direction whatsoever and even though the actress has one of those interesting faces appropriate for such a role, she gives such a phony and unbalanced performance it could only be considered a blessing that the character disappears after Episode 2. The actor portraying Lucrezia’s first husband Giovanni Sforza is also an unbearable, hysteric whiner that the viewer can’t wait to see exit the screen (and he quickly does, thank God). Ludovico Sforza also has a small cameo in Episode 1 and though the actor can efficient play serious, he squanders his one chance to make a lasting impression as the mighty usurper Duke of Milan, which is also the case with the great Diane Fletcher as Caterina Sforza: she conveys a noble and distantly regal quality that is totally right for her character but she lacks the bite and volatility that would render her role something even marginally above than utterly forgettable.

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