Few actors ooze decadence as effortlessly as Jeremy Irons, and casting him as the patriarch of “The Borgias” — an amoral pope, no less, who bribes and bullies his way into the papacy — sounds like the role of a lifetime. Yet Neil Jordan’s take on this “original crime family” is never as fun as its “The Godfather”-spoofing promos, proving oddly inert despite the requisite bouts of medieval bloodshed and bodice-ripping. Showtime milked four seasons out of “The Tudors,” but like that show, this one offers little reason to send up celebratory plumes of white smoke.
The two-hour premiere begins in 1492, a year more closely associated with Columbus’ voyage. In Rome, however, Irons’ elder Borgia is busily scheming to become pope, with the assistance of his equally ruthless sons Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Juan (David Oakes).
Alas, Borgia lacks the necessary support among the College of Cardinals, which requires some elaborate plotting to circumvent the two clergymen (played by Colm Feore and Derek Jacobi) determined to stop him.
Once selected, the new Pope Alexander VI tells the mother of his children (Joanne Whalley) that he can no longer indulge in pleasures of the flesh, then proceeds to do just that with a new mistress (Lotte Verbeek). Meanwhile, Cesare procures the services of a skilled assassin (Sean Harris) to help protect his father and safeguard the family’s designs on expanding its power.
Writing all the episodes and directing the first two, Jordan might initially be lauded for avoiding the obvious temptation for excess. If ever a concept invited pressing pay-cable boundaries for its own sake, “The Borgias” would have to be it. Cesare, for example, spends a lot of time longingly eyeing younger sister Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), merely hinting at the depths of the family’s depravity.
Still, that restraint, if that’s the right word for it, leaves the program feeling muddled, spending too much time with the younger Borgias — who only live up to the “bore” part — and the labyrinthine workings of Vatican politics. The fourth hour, moreover, features a wedding sequence that lasts so long the producers ought to send thank-you notes to viewers.
The production is shot in Hungary, and the look and costumes are certainly lavish, placing Irons under an assortment of funny hats. What’s lacking four hours in, though, is any spark or sly humor that might liberate the series from its turgid sobriety.
Even the ostensibly bold depiction of religious hypocrisy is tempered by the passage of 500-some-odd years.
If the Borgias truly provided inspiration for the Corleones and by extension the Sopranos, Showtime’s exploration of this first crime family won’t do anything to make you forget those others.