No one in Showtime’s new soap opera—er, historical drama—The Borgias is having a good time. Not Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander, not any of the actors playing his children, followers or enemies, and certainly not the audience.
The over-the-top story of the Borgia family, fraught with poisonings, treachery, possible incest and papal abuse, cries out for over-the-top gusto. Instead, we get the Masterpiece Theater version, albeit with more sex and violence.
Much of the series, which opens with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the clan to make their patriarch the new pope, feels as blunt and dull as a high school history lesson, livened up not at all by the mediocre performances. Irons long ago gave up on acting, settling for making bedroom eyes on camera while muttering at various volumes. And any actor under the age of 40 here looks and sounds like a graduate of mumblecore. Picture Andrew Bujalski’s repertory of actors performing A Streetcar Named Desire, and you’re close to what The Borgias is like. Particularly egregious is Francois Arnaud as the eldest Borgia son, whose artfully patchy facial hair plants him firmly in the 21st century, not the 15th.
But then, the whole series reeks of highbrow porn for people who like their illicit sex gussied up by history and lush production values. There are whispered plots, elaborate schemes and more brocade than a Victorian furniture store. Only Joanne Whalley steams through the listless proceedings with operatic intensity as Showtime’s Lady (Borgia) MacBeth. Everyone else has a reverence for the time period and papal setting that the real-life Borgias certainly never possessed.
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