Monday, April 4, 2011

Showtime's The Borgias – Kill the Characters not the Monkey

Last night, I watched the soporific 2-hour premier of Showtime’s the Borgia.The show begins with Innocent VIII’s deathbed scene- a man guilty of enough simony (not to mention his countless bastards) to land him in Dante’s 8th circle of hell. Innocent asks his cardinals to clean up their act and make the church respectable again. Now, a new Pope must be chosen. Ok. we were off to a good start. 

But half way through the first two episodes, and somewhere between feeling like I was being walled up in a Papal conclave and wishing for the darn smoke to turn white so something would happen in this mind-numbing plot line…I realized that I simply did not care about these characters. Unlike the Godfather, (the movie the producers supposedly intended to emulate) there isn’t a single redeeming quality about any of the family members. In fact, I am pretty sure that I felt more sorry for Cesare’s taster monkey that bites it in the first episode.

And I don’t even like monkeys.

The main character, Rodrigo Borgia is over-simplified to the point of being obnoxious. Cesare Borgia is a peevish brat without a conscience.  The vapid Lucrezia’s biggest desire is to be painted with an exotic beast. The entire family comes across as a bunch of thugs with a singular desire– power. It’s the singular part that turns into a real snooze fest. For such a talented cast, they weren't given much to work with. While shows like the Sopranos have multi-layered characters with multi-layered desires, the Borgias are reduced to a bunch of one-liners. In the Sopranos, we are horrified by Tony Sopranos’ unscrupulous actions, but he is still a very human character. We feel his guilt when he sits in that psychiatrist’s chair. And when Jonathan Rhys Myers flashes his psycho eyes in The Tudors, I may giggle now and then, but I still feel his character torn between his own desires and the desires of his family and the church. These characters were all very human with human wants and human cares. The Borgias' dead monkey seems to have more feeling. 

The most frustrating part is that the real history had tons for viewers to care about. Alexander VI, despite his moral ineptitude, loved his children to death and was willing to destroy everything the peace of Lodi had established to protect them. In Showtime’s The Borgia, Alexander doesn’t seem to give a bag of figs for his sons or his daughter. He admonishes Cesare like an overworked father and has very little interaction with Lucrezia.

Where are the family factions splitting political lines? The Sforza, the Visconti, the Colonna, the Orsini, and most importantly the Medici? Did the producers really need to spend an entire episode on showing just how corrupt Alexander was? And where is Savanarola with his fire and brimstone sermons and his child messengers? Where is Ludovico Sforza and his machinations with the French –inviting the devil to his doorstep to crush his enemies in Naples only to have the serpent turn on him. Now THERE is a powerful story. 

I think Michelangelo sums up perfectly the atmosphere in Rome that the Borgias took two hours too long to establish.

Here they make helmets and swords out of chalices,
And they sell the blood of Christ by handfuls,
And cross and thorns are lances and shields
And even Christ all patience loses.

But let him come no more to these city streets,
For here his blood would flow up to the very stars,
Now that in Rome they sell his skin
And they have closed the roads to all goodness…

Perhaps Michelangelo saw what the producers of the Borgias missed – that a story stripped of humanity truly is a road closed to all goodness.  It’s this redeeming goodness that the Borgia is missing. Mario Puzo's The Godfathers succeeded not because it had “Sex. Power. Murder. Amen,” but because in their Machiavellian pursuit of power they were still just a family that loved each other and were willing to die for each other. Unfortunately, the Borgias love their family as much as their monkeys.

I REALLY wanted to like the Borgia. Now, I only have watched the first two episodes so perhaps this is just a slow start and the series will get there. But so's just not coming together for me. But I would love to hear what others thought. Personally, I am really enjoying Camelot (Produced by the Michael Hirst - the same producer as The Tudors.) so I am getting my history fix. 


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Welcome back! I'm sort of glad now that I can't afford Showtime!

RTMS said...

Wow your back. Still debating whether I want to watch this series. I'm wondering if you could review CAMELOT? Granted it's semi fantasy but they seem to have made an effort to tone that down and make it a more legit history of England.

Anonymous said...

I can safely say I completely disagree with you on this show. I expected debauched orgies and senseless murders and then found the characters and especially Cesare very enganging and human. He came across to me as a well-rounded character with a dilemma, a young man following his father's wishes out of love, even though he disagrees with them, willing to do almost anything to protect his family from the dangers because he seems to be the only one who sees those dangers. He is more of an adult in this than his father, who has acomplished his great dream and now flounders a bit. I thought that was an interesting father-son dynamic.

Lucretia may be a rather naive, vain, even empty-headed girl at the moment, but I am sure we will see her evolve to a much more mature character and that will be interesting to watch too - at least for me.

I might add, I know almost nothing about the actual history of the Borgias and I am going to keep it that way until I have seen the first season, just as I did with the Tudors. I find this makes the shows more enjoyable for the time being and I don't need to join the ranks of those that are constantly annoyed by the inaccuracies.

Historical shows like the Tudors and the Borgias are gateways to the actual history for me. I own a whole library of books about the Tudors now, when I had no idea about them before I saw the series. But I prefer watching and enjoying them before reading up on the historical people.

Bearded Lady said...

Elizabeth - just making a quick appearance. Still catching up on deadlines.

RTMS - love Camelot. I am certainly not an expert on the Arthurian legend but it seems to follow it VERY loosely. Will try to find time to review it.

Anonymous - thank you for sharing your opinion. A friend of mind said that I wouldn't start seeing all the facets of Cesare until the 3rd or 4th episode so it could be that I need to be patient. But so far....zzzzzzz It seems he just wants power and I feel that the writers just weren't trusting their audience to get that notion in 10 minutes so they spent 2 hours on the same subject.

I would add that is not the acting. The actors are fantastic. I am very familiar with the real history and it is disappointing to see the dramatized version of events duller and slower paced than the real history.

I think part of the problem is that all the action takes place in Rome - which was really not the intersection of art, politics or even religion. Rome at this time was still a city of ruins (despite some of the Borgias improvements)

I think if the action had taken place in Florence or Milan then the writers would have had more to work with.

But thanks again for your opinion. It is always interesting to see a completely different reaction to the same drama.

kriswaldherr said...

Carlyn, I agree 100% with you on this. I sat through the two hour premiere and thought, "I could give squat about these odious people." To be fair, I tried the third episode, but turned it off about 3/4 through when it became clear that a not-to-be-spoiled plot point was going to give me nightmares.

It's clear that the producers were going for a dark, Godfatheresque/Sopranos-style saga. But they forgot to create characters that we actually feel invested in, even if they are clearly antiheroes.

I did love the costumes and art direction though. And the actor who plays Cesare is a hunk to look at, and seems appealing emo for a conflicted psychopath. But I need more than eye candy to continue watching The Borgias.

And I wanted so badly to like this.

Bearded Lady said...

ok I will fess up. I watched the third episode too because I was just praying it turned around.

I liken the third episode to watching a really bloody train wreck while somehow you simply don't care if anyone survived.

But I agree, the actor that plays Cesare is quite a hunk and a fabulous actor. (sigh) If only the writers had given him more to work with.

And I love the costumes too (despite being entirely inaccurate for what Roman women wore.) It is obvious some serious ducats were dropped on this one. Too bad.

Curious if anyone has watched Camelot? I usually don't get into fantasy dramas but it is my new tv addition. Joseph Fiennes gives Myers a run for his money with the crazy eye act. I love it!

Anonymous said...

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Bearded Lady said...

thanks for the invite. I signed up.

H Niyazi said...

Hello Carlyn. It's so great to see you blogging again!

It may be worth clarifying the Michelangelo quote you have used was actually referring to Pope Julius II (cardinal della Rovere in the show) and his fondness for war against fellow Christians demonstrated by the battles against the Venetians and their allies.

This was hence written at a time much later than that depicted in the show, and somewhat motivated by Michelangelo's personal qualms with Julius II during the Sistine project. It is essentially a commentary against the Church going to war, something which Alexander pursued far less vigorously than Julius II. For more on this, execerpts from Addington-Symons exceptional biography of Michelangelo can be accessed here

I am having a great time watching The Borgias, but I don't think I have the same expectations you seemed to. Perhaps you are comparing it to The Tudors(which I have not seen)?

Due to a frightening amount of requests, I have been doing reviews of the art and historical aspects of what you see on screen. There is hopefully very little of me ranting one way of the other - too many other reviewers doing that!

Savonarola, The Medici, Machiavelli, the Sforza have all made an apperance now. It would have simply been too much to cram into the first 2-3 episodes.

For anyone curious - the link to these reviews is listed below.

3PP Borgias art/historical reviews

Kind Regards

Bearded Lady said...
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Bearded Lady said...

I did not mean to imply that the quote was referencing the Borgia. Like I said in my post, this quote summed up the atmosphere in Rome - something the show took too long to portray.But since you brought it up, this was written at the time Michelangelo finished the Pieta which was during Alexander's reign. (Unless my book of Michelangelo sonnets is wrong).

Symonds book is great (although a little out-dated). I actually am writing a book about Michelangelo now...thus no time for blogging lately. :(

I would argue that Alexander paved the way for an inevitable invasion. And yes, Julius is quite a character. I could go on and on about him....another day.

I will check out your posts when I have a chance. great to hear from you,

H Niyazi said...

Hello Carlyn. Many thanks for your reply.

I would be very much interested in knowing the datils of the book you are referencing, particularly if there is new dating evidence for sonnet 55, which is commonly described in numerous sources as 'on the pontificate of Julius'

This is the poem signed 'in Turchia' which seems out of place for 1499, the year where Alexander was negotiating alliances with Papal states and Venice to defend themselves from the the Ottomans.

I look forward to finding out about this book! I'm always excited by the prospect of new evidence!

Kind Regards

Bearded Lady said...

Hi niyazi, I am traveling this week so i don't have access to my primary sources. But you can reference George bull's biography or hibbert's biography on the Borgia that both reference the quote I have use to when he finished the pieta - which was obviously during alexander's reign.

H Niyazi said...

Cheers Carlyn. I do have that Hibbert but it is on loan at the moment, I will track it down and see what it says. I'd never really thought about the dates of Michelangelo's sonnets that closely before.

In his 2003 work on Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King uses the same quote, though in reference to Julius II's warmongering, without clarifying the actual date of the sonnet.


Bearded Lady said...

Hi Niyazi, ok I am back...So I am afraid I am not going to be much help on the exact date of that particular letter. (he wrote the sonnet in a letter). This one is undated. Yes, I have read Ross King's book (which I love) but my favorite biographer on M is John Spike's book - Young Michelangelo. He references it to the time of the Pieta and I tend to trust his research.

I don't think there is anyway of really knowing the date. Michelangelo wasn't exactly happy about the situation in Rome during the Borgias but things certainly did not improve under Julius either. Rome under both popes created an climate of fear - one where M would have to make thinly veiled insults.

I will say this - I think the clue as to when he wrote it lies in way he signed the letter - Vostro Michel- angniolo, in Turchia. (Michelangelo in Turkey)

You know M could be very sarcastic. Obviously, he wasn't in Turkey. This could refer to one of two things

1. Savanarola's teachings about the infidels in Turkey. He repeatedly talked about Turkey in his little uplifting sermons

2. The Sultan of Turkey inviting him to join his payroll.

#1 seems to fit more with the general theme of the poem. But #2 seems like a better joke.

And most people don't know this (as I am sure you already do) but M had a biting sense of humor.

So sorry to be so longwinded - but I don't think anyone knows which pope he is referring to. What is clear is that Rome was no Disney during this time.

But I would love to hear when you think he wrote it or if you have any more clues. Isn't it fascinating to pick apart his sonnets? They are surprisingly good too!

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Anonymous said...

Is there even a mention of the most illustrious Borgia=Borja: Saint Francis Borja, 3rd General of the Jesuits and grandson of AVI and nephew of Cesare and Lucrezia?

Last One Goes the Hope said...

I think the show is great, The actor playing Cesare is from my province in Canada (Quebec):D and I couldn't have hoped for a better Cesare. I already knew alot of the story because I happened to read a manga named Cantarella based on Cesare Borgia, of course it was quite romanced but the same characters were there, the same ''fraternal love'' (or not ?) Between Cesare and Lucrecia, the same hate, jealousy between Cesare and Juan, even Michelotto, Alphonso, Sanccia and of course Della Rovere are in this story and all the politic family factions. So I was quite satisfied with the show

MikeDU said...

I like History & fictional past stories too. Maybe I'll give it a watch!

said Mike.

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sukotsuto said...

What you have said in that blog post is the exact same reason why I didn't want to watch any more of Showtime's "The Borgias", and instead, is the main reason why I prefer Canal+'s "Borgia". Not to be confused with one another, as they weren't made too far apart from one another time-wise, I highly recommend "Borgia".


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Unknown said...

I love the series, but I hate it when Hollywood hastens to change real documented history for what they think is a better story. The history of the Borgia clan is good enough without adding or changing history. I am actually appalled that they made up that Lucretzia invented the deception that charmed the King of France not to sack Rome. And history clearly states that Juan is the eldest not Cesere. Why do stupid antics like that. The funniest being when Cesere kidnaps Lucretzia's husband Giovanni Sfortza from Pesaro and brings him to Rome apparently by the next morning. Look at a map. 232 miles. Wow. Fast horses.

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