April 15, 2013



THE BORGIAS:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime

Showtime must have a great co-production deal on THE BORGIAS.  Despite what is evidently a handsome budget–certainly far more expensive than what shows like House of Lies or even Homeland cost to produce–the series barely makes a ripple in the ratings, last year managing an 18-49 rating of 0.2 at best, with about 700,000 total viewers.  Even for pay cable, those would usually be deadly numbers for a high-cost show–and it’s not as though Borgias gets the kind of Emmys attention that could make a big investment worthwhile as a prestige project.  And yet here The Borgias is, starting its third season.  One has to assume Showtime’s foreign partners on the show are taking on a large proportion of the cost.

Dramatically, the series remains extremely busy yet remarkably uninvolving.  Season 2 ended on a supposed cliffhanger, with Pope Alexander VI nee Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) having unknowingly swallowed poison administered at the behest of treacherous Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore, also a dapper baddie on Revolution).  Season 3, written by Guy Burt and directed by Kari Skogland, picks up there, as the Pope’s daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), who knows a thing or two about poison, figures out that he can be cured by ingesting charcoal.  As Rodrigo recuperates, Della Rovere is temporarily taken into custody and everybody schemes, the Borgias on the one hand and the Cardinals and the Borgias’ other enemies, the Sforzas, on the other.  Even after it’s clear the Pope will survive, Caterina Sforza (Gina McKee) launches an attack on the Borgia family designed to kill all of them, including Lucrezia’s infant son, in one swoop–and using yet another untrustworthy Cardinal, Ascanio Sforza (Peter Sullivan), to take another shot at the Pope.  But when Ascanio finds out that Della Rovere has escaped the Vatican and thus he, and not Ascanio, would be the likely new Pope if this one died, he betrays his family and tells the Borgias about the plot.

So there’s no shortage of storyline.  None of it, though, is more than casually interesting.  It’s not that the characters are too dark to be likable–the protagonists of The Americans are incredibly dark, and yet that’s the most gripping new show of the season.  Nor is it that the story is set centuries ago–Game of Thrones, while in a fictional universe, takes place in the fantasy equivalent of the Middle Ages, and it’s a barnburner.  The problem with The Borgias is that these characters have nothing at all to them but their scheming.  Aside from Irons, who chews on the scenery like an actor who’s bitter he never got to play a Harry Potter villain, the characters are colorless and even, in the case of the various bearded young men on both sides, sometimes hard to tell apart.  All of them have exactly the same motivation–a lust for power–and little else to distinguish them.  Showtime likes to describe the show as being about “the original crime family,” but even the third cousins of the Corleones or Sopranos were more interesting than these people.

The Borgias is a sumptuous visual experience, filled with huge halls laden with artwork and painstakingly ornate gowns (for the Cardinals as well as the women).  The show is crafted with care and it doesn’t lack intelligence.  But it’s a dry, repetitive exercise in historical intrigue.  This isn’t a case where low ratings indicate that an audience just hasn’t realized how good a show is–The Borgias are getting their historical due.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."