How do you tell a story about an illustrious family steeped in crime and corruption without falling into the same tired patterns that tend to accompany those elements? You go back to the source and you push those elements to the highest iteration possible. You don’t make any claims of originality or posture your story as a groundbreaking new take on the genre. Instead, you make it the first take, the earliest take, the take that all other takes have been based on.
In this case, you start with the House of Borgia — a notorious Renaissance-era family — and you turn what is already a legend into a legend with no boundaries. For any viewer fascinated by the storied heroes of modern-day crime sagas, the unique blood-soaked legacy of the House of Borgia is the ultimate incarnation of that mythos. While the Corleones and the Sopranos of the world may aspire to a place of untouchable power, the Borgias actually had it. At a time when God reigned supreme, they were God, or as close to God as men could be. And that made them deities on Earth, but deities who were still completely vulnerable to the corruptive nature of power. Gods who loved sex, violence, and money? Sounds like a hell of a premise for a TV show. And it is.
“The Borgias” begins in the midst of an important transition. The Renaissance is in full swing, the Pope is dying, and the College of Cardinals has assembled to name a successor. Immediately, the viewer begins to understand what the name Borgia means. Rodrigo Borgia, master of quiet manipulation, wheels and deals his way into the Papacy, buying for himself one of the most influential seats of power in the world. From there, all he has to do is keep that seat. Working against him are his enemies within the church, his enemies abroad, and the unpredictable nature of the European alliance system. Cue the bloody violence. This is going to be a rough ride.
Of course, the ride takes a while to get moving, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the writers are transporting you several centuries into the past while introducing an enormous story that will literally span continents, and they’re doing it all in a 45-minute pilot episode. That’s not something they want to rush into, nor is it something you want to be rushed into.
Fortunately, the characters you meet should alone be enough to pique your interest. They’re complex, bizarrely likeable, and reek of intrigue. They’re all hiding something or looking to gain something or both. And it’s not just the members of the Borgia family — it’s everyone, from the deceptive holy men to the ambitious heads of state, all the way down to the serfs and servants who inhabit the background of every scene.
From there, you begin to take in the setting. It’s an entirely unfamiliar world, so give yourself some time to get accustomed. Once you get past the frilly language and the dramatic, choir-backed hymns that resonate through each episode, you find yourself appreciating the small details: The costumes and the backdrops and all the subtle references to historical figures and events of the time.
If the characters, the period, and the abundant references aren’t enough to keep you watching, there’s always the sex and the violence. Both are savage, raw, and uninhibited. This is Showtime, so nothing is left unseen. Blood, boobs, and more blood will carry this show even if the story gets murky. Which it probably won’t because there’s more than enough scandal-ridden Borgia history to go off of here.
And that there is the beauty of historical fiction. It’s historical, so there’s a factual basis to derive plot points from, and it’s fiction, so you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want with those points. Request to writers: Please make Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli fight to the death in a cage match. I will edit their Wikipedia pages to make it legit.