I came into The Borgias knowing very little about the show, other than its star Jeremy Irons (Kingdom of Heaven) had been receiving praise for his work on the show, having been recently nominated for a Golden Globe. And not seeing shows of a similar era like The Tudors, I was not entirely sure what to expect of The Borgias, but with acclaimed director Neil Jordan (The Tudors) helping to drive the show, how bad could it be?
The show is set in 1492, and Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, a Spaniard who eventually became Pope Alexander VI. The first episode shows Rodrigo's power plays and back room deals that he made to assume the role. One of the first things that surprises you if you are unfamiliar with the ways of the church in that era as I was is that Borgia was married and had several children, as many of the cardinals appeared to have as well. In Rodrigo's case, his children include Cesare, (Francois Arnaud), whom he trusts and even makes a cardinal of the Vatican, despite Cesare's desire to be more involved with the military. Rodrigo's daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger, Jane Eyre) might be the one who Rodrigo loves the most, and when Rodrigo betroths her to a Lord in another Italian territory, she begins to suffer from maltreatment by him. Rodrigo's other child is Juan (David Oakes) who also dreams of a role in battle but is simply not up for the task. And what of Rodrigo in all of this, married to one woman (Joanne Whalley, Scandal) while sleeping with another (Lotte Verbeek)? His ascendance to the title was not without ruffling some feathers, the most of which appear to belong to Giuliano della Rovere (Colm Feore, Thor). Giuliano was a cardinal in the church who protested Rodrigo's election, and vowed (all the more so after surviving an assassination attempt) to overthrow Rodrigo, even if it meant employing the French armies in the process.
There are two things about The Borgias which after watching the first season's nine-episode run (spread over three discs) that struck my incredulity cords in varying degrees. Starting with the most egregious, to paraphrase Bobby Brown there is a lot of humping around in 1492 Italy. All of the Borgias save for Rodrigo's wife appear to be getting some in one fashion or another, and when the show doesn't show the coital activities, the ramifications of some of the hook-ups are given their proper attention. Without going into too many specifics, the story arc that Lucrezia is involved in looks a bit like when Daenerys Targaryen was married to Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, but without the dragon eggs. And when the characters aren't having a little fun, sometimes there is some implied previous fun, such as a possible teased relationship between Cesare and Lucrezia. However fun might not be the word to describe that bit of cringe worthiness. I understand that similar period shows employ many of the same stories in their work, but one would assume that it is not a driving force week to week on each installment.
The other thing that is also a little hard to digest at first is the fate of Rodrigo to the Vatican throne. However, over the course of the season Irons transforms Rodrigo from that first episode where he is greedy and seemingly power-hungry to be the next Pope into a character who seems to regret being in the position for fear of the damage being done to his family. He wants the best for his children, yet appears to show instant remorse upon Lucrezia's marriage, wondering if he did the right thing. To a lesser degree, the same could be said about his youngest son Joffre's marriage to a much older woman from Naples. Lurking in the background is Giuliano's desire to overthrow Rodrigo, and what (if anything) Rodrigo may do about it. The show's first season ends with a glorious event which occurs to one of Rodrigo's children, but as he discovered earlier in the show, it may be something that leads to greater conflict in the future. Irons displays the conflict his character faces through the season, holding the fragility of his family together in a convincing manner, one worthy of his abilities and the praise he received.
Despite Irons' performance, I did not find anything in the way of substantive charisma for many of the characters, and if the actors are not going to invest the same time into their internal dilemmas that Irons has appeared to, there is little interest for me to do a similar investment in viewing the show itself. If the show sticks relatively close to historical events (Rodrigo's reign as Pope lasted for more than a decade, and Jordan has apparently said that the show should ideally run for four seasons, likely to occur on the creatively depressed Showtime cable channel), there may be room for a revisiting of the family down the road to see where they are both emotionally and historically. But with a show leaning on Irons' performance to lure people in, the supporting cast of The Borgias should get their dramatic house in order.
The Blu-Ray Discs:
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and in high definition with the AVC codec, The Borgias is an excellent looking show. Flesh tones are reproduced accurately, with facial detail looking consistent along with easily discernible fabric, stone and wood textures when given the opportunity. In particular, when the French move into Italy and there are extended exterior shots during the battle, the colors are reproduced superbly and the look feels multidimensional. Black levels are deep and provide a quality contrast, and the show's superb visuals retain in quality throughout the episodes. Excellent viewing material.
About as good as the show's Blu-ray presentation, the show's lossless audio track brings the goods when called upon. In the quieter scenes, dialogue is strong in the center channel and maintains a strong level throughout the show, and directional effects are smartly placed in almost every episode to convey an immersive experience. Sword fights have a metal clank that rings out over a broad sound stage, and when getting into the aforementioned battle, the rumble of the cannons is emphasized by the subwoofer filling out the low end accurately and convincingly. Regardless of the show, the discs' sound is fantastic.
It is disappointing, as there are more chances for other Showtime original shows to get looks on the bonus section that actual content on The Borgias. Via BD-Live, The first two episodes of the sixth season of Dexter and the first season of Gigolos, along with the first two eps of the fourth season of Californication are available via BD-Live. The interface is decent and without complaint. The third disc is where the "special features" are, but the first two shows of a show titled Episodes, the Season Six episode of Dexter (again?) and the pilot of the Don Cheadle show House of Lies are the only bonus materials to speak of.
The first season of The Borgias has another in a long line of intriguing performances by its star, but the bench is rather shallow following that, and in nine episodes, you would be surprised at how very little happens other than what impacts the Borgias' bedroom stories. Technically the show looks and sounds outstanding, but the supplements are nonexistent unless you are a fan of cross-promotion, in which case this is the set for you. If you like television drama as I do, this three disc set of Blu-rays is worth renting to watch and listen to, but does not bring much to the table past that.