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The Borgias Season One

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As guilty pleasures go, The Borgias on DVD is seriously evil. Nine episodes of treachery, mayhem, murder, intrigue and every imaginable sin – all in one easy-to-open package – it’s addictive, compelling, remorselessly watchable television.

The Borgias recounts the tale of Rodrigo Borgia, who in 1492 successfully bribed his way onto the throne of Saint Peter and became Pope Alexander VI. Surrounded by his scheming offspring, he extended the grasp of the papacy, and he managed to survive for the next eleven years as the de facto ruler of Rome and head banana of the Catholic church.

Papal politics during the Renaissance were somewhat bloodier than they are at the moment. Various authors have suggested that the Borgias were comparable to the Mafia – Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather, also wrote a novel about the Borgias.

Showtime’s production of The Borgias evinces the grandeur of fifteenth-century Rome with lush, sprawling sets and elegantly costumed actors. However, its writing is easily its most brilliant set piece. Rooted in the history of the period but not mired in it, the episodic tales of The Borgias move with the stealth and cunning of a well-trained assassin, and are never dull.

Unlike a great many costume dramas, the actors who populate The Borgias have clearly been chosen for their ability to act, rather than for their resemblance to the historical figures they portray. Few of them look at all like extant portraits from the period, but they summon their characters to life with a degree of verisimilitude that will make you want to check under your sofa for a time machine.

Television has taken several earlier shots at the turgid life of the Borgias, but this is unquestionably the definitive production of their tale. While it’s unlikely that you’d want to have dinner with any of the principal figures in The Borgias – certainly not unless you could have your food tasted first – they all successfully eschew their traditional portrayals of evil, psychopathic monsters. Pope Alexander is ruthless and cunning rather than malevolent; Cesare Borgia is unprincipled by our lights but hardly out of keeping with the times in which he finds himself and Lucrezia Borgia, history’s most notorious poisoner and woman of easy virtue, is an unhappy teenager moved about an unseen chessboard by her scheming family.

Fifteen minutes into the first episode, you’ll probably decide that you’d have done the same, had you found yourself in similar circumstances.

Curiously, The Borgias has a considerable wealth of historical detail that’s notably inaccurate or flat-out wrong. Pope Alexander’s coronation features a performance of Zadok the Priest, by George Frideric Handel – who wouldn’t be born for another three centuries. Cesare has a pet Capuchin monkey, a species native to South America, this being a continent which hadn’t as yet been discovered. The new world is referred to as America by the ambassador from Spain, a term first given to it by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller almost ten years later. Lucrezia Borgia discusses sprezzatura, an expression from The Book of the Courtier written by Baldessare Castiglione in 1528, a decade after she died.

Little of this is one wit as interesting as watching the evil Cardinal Della Rovere plotting with the king of France to depose the pope, of course.

When you’ve finally shot through all nine sittings of The Borgias – and they do seem all too brief in reflection – there’s a reasonable palette of extra features on the final disc of the set. Certainly not to be overlooked is the blooper reel, in which the brooding, intense actors of the performance inadvertently let their hair down, blow their lines and curse loudly enough to make a whore blush… or even a Borgia.

The Borgias on DVD or Blu Ray is easily the most entertaining way to blow forty dollars yet devised. It’s arguably not suitable for young or sensitive viewers, for which the rest of us can be grateful. Canadian viewers will note from its closing credits that it was produced using our tax dollars – it might represent the first Canadian government pork project in history that was actually worth paying for.

Happily, Showtime has ordered a second season of The Borgias as of this writing. Things are likely to get even bloodier.