While not airing on any American TV network, "Borgia: Faith and Fear" did find a home on Netflix, possibly due to Showtime's dissolution of their deal with the company, taking away Showtime's more well known and acclaimed series covering similar ground, "The Borgias" from reaching Netflix viewers. The series is the brainchild of Tom Fontana and although presented as 12, roughly one-hour episodes, it appears in European markets, the series aired six nights, with a pair of episodes each airing. Upon learning this fact after watching the first two episodes separately, it's actually preferred method of tackling this technically sound but increasingly repugnant and moderately flawed series.
I offer full disclosure, the series only piqued my interest after learning of the Borgia family thanks to the "Assassins Creed" games where they were given the role of antagonists to hero Ezio. I went in with no expectations, assuming the evil deeds of the game were likely embellishments; in the end that was a huge mistake. Opening in 1492 at the end of Pope Innocent VIII's (an extended cameo from Udo Kier) life, "Borgia: Faith and Fear" or simply "Borgia" from here forward, chronicles the life of the infamous Italian family, primarily through the rise to power of Rodrigo Borgia (a horribly miscast John Doman). "Borgia" is initially a very confusing series with multiple characters arriving on the scene all at once, but a few episodes in and the major players become clear.
To call the Borgia clan unlikable is a vast understatement, even though the first third of the series tries to shed some humanity on Cesare (Mark Ryder), one of Rodrigo's three bastard children. In historical context, Cesare would have been around the age of 15, however the series clearly tries to conceal this fact for obvious reasons, but knowing this truth makes he and his siblings deeds all the more horrific and stomach turning. Cesare is a conflicted young man, fighting an internal battle between devotion to God and futilely trying to control a psychopathic temper. Fontana highlights Cesare's self-flagellations while giving us glimpses at his increasing violence; what begins as a beating against a foe who has insulted his family turns to the maiming of his brother's foes and even infanticide, as anger turns to jealousy. Keep in mind, Cesare is intended to be someone viewers want to watch, but his sadistic ways, coupled with Ryder's confused, one-note performance make the character unbearable.
The rest of the Borgias don't fare any better, Lucrezia (Isolda Dychauk) is a greedy, whining ingrate, while Juan (Stanley Weber) is a callous adulterer with a temper of his own that makes for a marked increase in bloodshed when side-by-side with Cesare. At the end of the day though, it all comes back to Rodrigo, whose sleazy nature (he sends a nephew off to war in order to have an affair with the man's wife) grows calmer but diabolical as he positions his way to the role of pope. "Borgia" is at its finest in its first half as the series focuses on Rodrigo's rise to power. Fontana weaves a very engaging, political plot, which keeps you on edge, even knowing the outcome. The rest of the series while more than adequately written, just fails to connect due to not the unlikable nature of the characters, but the shaky acting.
"Borgia" is a well-produced, eye-pleasing series, but its cast, is not A-level and in some cases, not even B-level. Doman, has great screen presence, but his delivery of the dialogue doesn't do the writers' attempts at eloquence justice. In a way his performance reminds me of Harry Dean Stanton in "The Last Temptation of Christ," as it's jarring and momentarily removes me from being fully connected to the storytelling; the only problem is Doman isn't a small supporting role, but the lead. Eventually the viewer becomes familiar with Doman, but at the cost of true believability. The rest of the actors portraying the Borgia clan, like Ryder, are simply one-note and don't have the gravitas to make such unlikable people interesting to watch. Evil doesn't have to be uninteresting as numerous skilled actors have proven over the years from Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter" to Bill Moseley in "The Devil's Rejects."
At the end of the day "Borgia" is worth watching at least once for any interested parties, but the compelling political intrigue is on a whole, overshadowed by melodrama with dashes of extreme violence and sex to remind viewers that this is a series of adults. While I haven't seen the premiere season of "The Borgias," Showtime's take on the family, I can say what clips I've seen of Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo, put Doman to shame several times over. "Borgia" is rumored to have been renewed for two more seasons and for fans of the show, I'm happy, but this premiere year of the series was more than enough time spent.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer features above-average detail and strong color reproduction with minimal color bleeding, which is most clear whenever the cardinals convene, as the screen is often awash in a sea of red cloaks. Grain is natural but kept to a minimum, however there is no sign of DNR or edge-enhancement to be found.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is a small disappointment. Dialogue, effects and score are all crisp and cleanly reproduced, however, there isn't a lot of low-end workout, even in scenes where on-screen action would indicate it should be. Likewise, the surrounds aren't properly utilized, most notably in scenes taking place in expansive chambers, where the emphasis is too much in the front channels.
The only extras are a making-of featurette titled "The Making of Borgia: Faith and Fear" and an extensive collection of cast and crew interviews titled "Borgia Diaries."
A less than stellar cast and imbalance between politics and melodrama, make "Borgia" a slightly above average offering. No one will ever accuse the series of looking cheap, but unlikable, one-note characters are best consumed in small doses. Recommended.