Oh, The Borgias. You most prestigious, if not highest-rated, among Showtime’s blood-and-tits primetime business model. You’re entertaining despite yourself and you have a time slot that is, without a doubt, the toughest territory in all of television.
Seriously, I’ve just come to appreciate the sheer chutzpah of Showtime putting The Borgias in the same 10:00 PM Sunday slot that has been the home of increasingly staggering cable ratings in many places that conspicuously aren’t Showtime for years now. Currently, as with most of its first season, The Borgias airs at the same time as Game of Thrones. And while the latter saw its numbers increase to some rather respectable heights by the end of its first season (numbers it has already beaten in its second season), the former’s viewership dwindled to a place that would only keep it on the air on a premium network that never gets big ratings to begin with. I’m right along with the premium cable viewers who would much rather get their quasi-historical spectacle on HBO come Sunday night, but I have a soft spot for The Borgias all the same.
Whereas Game of Thrones has always been a serious, cinematic endeavor, The Borgias has been delightful trash from the word go. More importantly, Showtime’s horse in this race became self-aware by the second episode of its first season (at the very latest), embracing its exploitative atmosphere and hammy performances for what they are. Does this make it destination television? Hell no, but I’ll watch the reruns like no one’s business.
There’s a wonderfully ridiculous scene in The Borgias Season 2 premiere in which ostensible protagonist Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) stalks a deer through the woods around Rome with a crimson red bow, only to stumble into the ruins of an ancient Roman structure that was most likely a brothel. The place is adorned with curiously preserved frescoes of explicit sex and other kinds of debauchery, but to Rodrigo they are things of great beauty and historical significance. So, naturally, he has the frescoes removed from the ruins, installed in the freaking Vatican and restored by an artisan’s apprentice who is (naturally) a bisexual woman pretending to be a man so she can pursue her art.
In a sense, The Borgias is that very scene played out again and again each episode. It is a wholly implausible excursion that only ever dips its toe in historical reality for appearance’s sake, focusing instead on its own unabashed obsession with titillation. Oh, but it’s glorious for its Roman brothel sensibilities. If the show wasn’t entertaining, if it pulled its punches or tried to be taken seriously, it wouldn’t be worth talking about. To its credit, however dubious, The Borgias does trashy so damn well that I’m willing to critically endorse every gratuitous bath scene, every overblown sword fight, every hilarious Pope-ism that comes out of Jeremy Irons’s mouth…
…just, ya know, after I watch Game of Thrones first.