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The Borgias: TV Review

"The Borgias"
Jonathan Hession/Showtime

The Bottom Line

"The Borgias" retains the intrigue and conniving family politics that made season one such a pleasure ride, but it all has more snap now.

Airdate

10 p.m. Sunday, April 8 (Showtime)

Cast

Jeremy Irons, Francois Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Lotte Verbeek, Joanne Whalley, Colm Feore, David Oakes

Neil Jordan works out the kinks in season two of Showtime's saga about the crime family.

This review first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Showtime president David Nevins revealed an encouraging little gem about The Borgias over lunch recently, explaining how Neil Jordan -- the Academy Award-winning writer-director of many of the show's episodes -- knew a lot about filmmaking but still was learning the intricacies of plotting out a lengthy television season on the go last year. Nevins then promised that Jordan now has truly grasped how to pace a series.

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Based on the first four episodes of season two, premiering April 8, he was right. Borgias retains the intrigue and conniving family politics that made season one such a pleasure ride, but it all has more snap now, with Jordan spinning the plates with aplomb.

What propels Borgias most adroitly early this season is that for all the scheming Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) did to get his hands on the papal robes, he cannot quite fathom how the same tricks might be undoing his own family. Like Tony Soprano, he's got trouble at home.

He's far from safe outside the Vatican, also. For starters, King Charles of France (Michel Muller, who has been great since his first scene) is none too pleased that Naples -- given to him by Rodrigo in exchange for not invading Rome -- is filled with disease. And it will take more than a simple poisoning to stop Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) and his hellbent crusade to rid Rome of the Borgias. Meanwhile, Rodrigo still is negotiating to send his oldest son, Juan (David Oakes), to Spain to find a bride (and bring Italy another ally).

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The Borgias has made a wise choice in branching the story outward. Where season one was all about stealing the papacy, the multitude of other storylines revolved around sexual escapades. There's certainly nothing wrong with that -- and Showtime makes good use of its premium cable perks here -- it's just that for a historical drama to have real relevance long term, it needs to delve into the politics of the time. Through four episodes, at least, Borgias has found plenty of history to use.

There will be lots of interplay among the Borgia clan, including siblings Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), wife Vanozza (Joanne Whalley) and mistress Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek). But the breakout performance so far this season is Sean Harris as Micheletto -- "God's own assassin" -- in the employ of Cesare.

While there were a lot of beautifully framed scenes in season one, they often didn't go anywhere dramatically. The dialogue was strong, but the movement was stagnant, which made for episodes that shimmered briefly then got bogged down. In season two, Jordan shows he can move ideas along much more briskly. When Rodrigo demands that Rome "fight fire with fire" as the French king moves his cannons from Naples toward Rome, he wants every artisan and crafts-person to begin building cannons immediately. The problem? Recent celebrations have depleted the money to pay them and the available metal resources. A solution that's brazen and risky -- no spoiler here -- is dreamed up by Cesare. The episode keeps your heart pumping as the French arrive at the gates -- the execution is taut, and the show is one of the strongest in both seasons.

Make no mistake, there's still plenty of bed-hopping, too -- and if you've watched The Borgias at all, you know that our notion of a 1960s sexual revolution would be laughable to this lot.