About a century ago, a mildly interesting novelty called the motion picture began transforming itself. Within just a few years, it became the most popular of the popular arts— the one with the widest and deepest appeal worldwide.
To a large extent, that was due to a formula called hokum. Charismatic performers enacted stories that were a blend of drama, melodrama, romance and sentiment. There’d be some action, a joke or two, and some sort of compelling conflict. The stories were tailored to present heroes or heroines that an audience would identify with, and root for. Sophistication was strictly optional.
Today, of course, none of that will do. And sophistication is a difficult target to hit— cynicism is much easier to muster and most people don’t know the difference anyway. Generating sympathy for your story’s characters is so Twentieth Century. If lust and hate and blood are the candy everybody wants… give ’em what they want.
Which brings me to The Borgias, a sumptuously produced and well-acted series that’s so barren of any human value that it can only be watched with detachment. Yes, I know the series is based on history, I know these characters really lived and that they really were about as venal as they’re portrayed. But in this show, everyone is as bad as they are. All rulers are bloodthirsty lunatics, all religious figures are rutting, power-crazed hypocrites, and the commoners are debased, slack-jawed oafs.
And none of this is presented as a moral indictment, but as just the way the world works. The thrust of The Borgias‘ saga is not about somehow rising above all of this, but to hold power by being the worst of the worst. This is what the viewer is expected to cheer for.
And let me say upfront— I have no problem with violence, sex, profanity and nudity in my TV shows. The more the merrier. And there are plenty of great shows, from Dallas to Deadwood, with venal leading characters in them. I don’t object at all to The Borgias‘ subject matter, but to its blase resignation in presenting it all.
There’s ultimately nothing here except dreary people conspiring to crush each other, simply because having the power to do so is wonderful— I guess. And we’re expected to root for the assorted Borgias to prevail because, well, it’s their show. We don’t identify with them. The filmmaking may be very skillful but it can’t generate any sympathy for the show’s characters, or suspense over what might happen to them next. It’s all just a historical pageant, with a rape or a garroting now and then to keep us from nodding off.
Having said all that, it’s only fair to add that Jeremy Irons is quite good as Papa Borgia. He chews the scenery just enough to hold our attention, and I like the way he delivers all his lines in a gutteral Boris Karloff impression. But Francois Arnaud makes for a very colorless Cesare Borgia, and the Lucrezia Borgia enacted by Holliday Grainger is long on pretty, short on poison.
The settings— many of them staged in old cathedrals in Eastern Europe— are often amazingly beautiful. The costumes and stuff are nice to look at, too. Some very capable special effects bring a French army of 25,000 soldiers to vivid life. There’s always something happening. But none of it ever draws you in.
An ounce of hokum would’ve gone a long way.