‘The Borgias’

Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Showtime’s new costume drama is a winning recipe of sex and swordplay — shot beautifully with beautiful people.

The tagline for the new Showtime historical drama doesn’t mask any larger intent: “Sex. Power. Murder. Amen.”

OK, so you know what you’re getting. Not that it should be any huge mystery. Showtime reveled in the frothy guilty pleasures of The Tudors, which took more than a few liberties with history, not the least of which was installing Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII — the lithe, sexually adventurous version. So the pay cabler knows a little something about how sex and intrigue make history books come alive.

Tudors might have spun the heads of historians for its transgressions, but the series lasted four seasons and 38 episodes and proved a hit with viewers. Even before that series ended, Showtime commissioned Borgias as the next epic depiction of sex, power, murder, incredible costumes, good acting and more breasts and backsides than anyone can count.

Borgias stars Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the devious (and deviant) Spanish cardinal who bribed his way to becoming Pope Alexander VI, setting the stage for the Borgias to become, as Showtime says, “one of the most remarkable and legendary families in history — inspiring Machiavelli’s The Prince and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.”

Although much of the sordid Borgia history was written or concocted by their enemies, there’s little doubt they were not angels. The family came to power in the age of the Renaissance and were contemporaries of the Medicis, da Vinci and Michelangelo, among others.

Borgias was created, executive produced and written (in part) by director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), and the series was greenlighted while Showtime was already airing Tudors (created and written by Michael Hirst, who is doing the same with another costume drama, Starz’s Camelot, which will compete with Borgias for viewers).

Clear the DVR, people. 

Jordan has taken a page from Hirst in that he’s not attempting to pass Borgias off as 100 percent accurate. “I don’t claim to be telling a completely factual tale; that’s for textbooks,” Jordan says in the press notes. “This is a suspenseful crime drama based on real characters and events. I have a rapacious thirst for historical material, and if something sets off my imagination, I use it.”

The trick in Borgias and Tudors is to have the essential true-life story nailed to the ground for structure. Then, before anybody nods off, throw in a lot of sex and swordplay and shoot it all beautifully with beautiful people.

It’s a winning recipe and, lest you think it’s going to be all Irons and nubile young women, know that newcomers Francois Arnaud (as Cesare Borgia), Holliday Grainger (as Lucrezia Borgia), Lotte Verbeek (as the pope’s lover, Giulia Farnese) and many, many others in the cast show a fearlessness for historical romping.

Although the onus is on the viewer to do a bit of brushing up on the past to know the real story among these real people, it’s easy to allow grumpy historians to ruin the mood by complaining about accuracy. The fact is, these kinds of grand historical reimaginings can be a scrumptious combination of costume-drama acting, soap-opera theatrics and pay-cable promiscuity.

That’ll make the hours fly by. And it doesn’t mean your pleasure needs to be all that guilty.

Airdate 9-10:40 p.m. Sunday, April 3

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