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<I>The Borgias</I>: The Vatican Never Looked So Sexy

Like The Tudors before it, the newest Showtime series tackles history by making it very sexy looking and filled with murderous plots. While I don't remember this particular Pope from my CCD days, I'm quite sure that my ears would have perked up if I had heard about a Vatican filled with backstabbing, bribery and scores of illegitimate children. It's probably not a story you want to tell 12-year-olds, but definitely a solid basis for a cable TV series.

The Borgias centers on Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), a wealthy cardinal from Spain who has a lovely mistress and four children. But when the existing pope dies, he makes a serious power play to take over the papacy, including bribing people with coveted positions and doling out titles hidden inside of pork products. He does so with the help of his eldest son Cesare (Francois Arnaud), who handles all of the dirty work of making sure that people toe the line. It's not a pretty job, and it involves Cesare being a cleric pledged to God, though he'd far rather just have sex all the time and get the more military-based job that his younger, less-competent brother Juan (David Oakes) landed.

Borgia is elected as Pope Alexander VI, but there are plenty of dissenters, particularly Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore), who wanted the position, and also objects to the disgusting abuse of power that he sees coming from the Borgias. And he's pissed that the Pope isn't Italian. But the new pope isn't just worried about being overthrown; he's also got to contend with people trying to kill him. Thankfully, his son Cesare seems to put the kibosh on most of these plots as he's not afraid to do some killing in the name of God, and he enlists the help of known assassin Micheletto (Sean Harris) to carry out all these treacherous acts.

On the family/romantic side (I guess), the Borgia patriarch has to contend with his long-time mistress Vanozza (Joanne Whalley), who is the mother of his children. He basically tells her that they can't hook up because popes don't do that, don't you know. But that doesn't stop him from taking on a younger, hotter new mistress named Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek) and setting her up in the posh home of a deceased cardinal, which conveniently has little tunnels leading in and out of the Vatican. Handy for those late night trysts. Vanozza finds out about Guilia because of Lucrezia (Hollida Grainger), Rodrigo's 14-year-old daughter, who is very clued in to the machinations against him and the ways of the world.

The first two hours cram in a lot of exposition with some very brutal scenes of poor Micheletto getting whipped, and then having lemon juice poured on his wounds. He's a sympathetic killer-for-hire and Harris does a great job as the shadowy figure. There is a lot of sex, as you'd expect on a Tudors-like series, though the first encounter between Guilia and Rodrigo features the oddest angle for kissing that I've ever seen. Anyway, there's a lot more blood, murder and sex than you'd expect in a show about the Vatican. But my favorite scene came at the end of the second hour when Jeremy Irons just nailed it as a bored pope doing his duties. When he's mean and trying to terrify, he's awesome; when he's trying to be sexually appealing, well... not so much.

While I'm sure that historians will quibble about some of the liberties taken by the series (though I suspect there's more truth here than we think), I'm fine with anything that makes for more interesting (and attractive) television. But while a little bit of salacious history is appealing, and seeing a pope and his cardinal son do terrible things is compelling, the show has the potential to wear thin fairly quickly. At least with the talented Irons in the lead facing off the equally capably Feore, The Borgias is likely to stay intriguing beyond the first handful of episodes. And when in doubt, bring in more tiny monkeys and baby goats.

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