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The Borgias: TV Review

The Borgias
Showtime

The Bottom Line

You know what you're getting with "The Borgias," but it shouldn't be a huge mystery.

Airdate

Sunday, April 3 at 9 p.m. (Showtime)

Cast

Jeremy Irons, Francois Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Lotte Verbeek, Joanne Whalley

The historical drama from Neil Jordan stars Jeremy Irons as a devious Spanish cardinal and patriarch of the Borgia family.

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

Okay, so you know what you’re getting here. 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 cable channel knows a little something about how sex and intrigue make history books come alive.

The Tudors may 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 The Borgias as the next epic depiction of sex, power, murder, incredible costumes, surprisingly good acting and more breasts and backsides than anyone could count.

The Borgias stars Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the devious (and deviant) Spanish cardinal who bribed his way to becoming Pope Alexander VI, which set the stage for the Borgia family 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.”

Though much of the sordid Borgia history was either written or concocted by their enemies, there’s little doubt that 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.

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

Clear the DVR, people.

Jordan has taken a page from Hirst in that he’s not attempting to pass The 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 notes to the series. “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 both The Borgias and The Tudors is to have the essential true-life story completely nailed to the ground for structure. Then, before anybody nods off,  throw in a lot of sex and sword-play and shoot it all beautifully with beautiful people.

It’s a winning recipe and, lest you think it’s going to be all Jeremy 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 that meets standards already set by The Tudors and Spartacus (on Starz).

Although the onus is on the viewer to at least 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 promiscuousness.

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

Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com