Aug 162012

Somebody finally explained the concept of showrunner to Neil Jordan, creator and executive producer of Showtime’s The Borgias, who seems to be stepping back in season two. After writing every single episode in the first season, he only wrote the first half of the second season. Thanks to the absence of his stilted, heavy-handed scripts, scenes are allowed to develop, so the episodes do not linger in a swamp of over-acting, lifeless action and sex scenes that would bore a fourteen-year-old. Finally taking advantage of the art, sculpture and architecture of Italy, the show has become a visual treat. While I respect Jordan’s dedication and exhausting hours, the show will be the better for him stepping back. Way back.

The more relaxed direction has enabled the cast to actually act, rather than rush to get through scenes. The character of Cesare Borgia is becoming more interesting as he carves out his own strategy, but while many viewers undoubtedly find Francois Amaud easy on the eyes, he is not strong enough for the role. Although Joanne Whalley’s Vannoza dei Cattanei, the discarded mistress of the pope, has been given more screen time, she is usually required only to express impatience with her children, which seems genuine, as if urging Jordan to actually cut her loose. Holly Grainger as Lucretia Borgia has improved this season, demonstrating impressive skills as a plotter.

As Mel Brooks would say, ‘It’s good to be the Pope.’ Does Jeremy Irons, who plays Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, have an actual clause in his contract that he gets to make love to numerous shapely young women or is just a verbal agreement between him and Jordan? The women jumping into his bed would be more believable if they sought favor and influence, rather than simply needing him to satisfy their carnal desires. A true primadonna, Irons is not content to be a schemer, but has to be a real man, who knows how to please the ladies, and is brave enough to risk his life to rescue people from a cathedral that is on the verge of collapse.

While the first season maintained an even level of quality, remaining bland throughout, this season has been uneven. The first half of the season was painful, reaching a nadir when the pope, his mistress and a young painter masqueraded as commoners one night to better understand the poor, experiencing danger, disgust, guilt and the thrill of gambling. The disguise would have been more effective if the mistress and painter had stopped referring to the pope as “your holiness” when in earshot of the humble masses.

Enough with the incest!! “Was there a writers’ meeting on how to top Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, and someone said “I know…brothers doing it, yeah, that hasn’t been done yet.” Draw the line here and end the incest-race, there is no need to show family orgies or parents molesting their children. No, no bestiality either. Besides, Kevin Smith already did it in Clerks 2, and you will never top a man performing fellatio on a donkey. Honestly, you won’t, so don’t embarrass yourself by trying.

Humor has finally been introduced to the show, which is necessary, since the series has cranked up the religious zealotry. The scene of men whipping themselves in front of the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola was both intense and disturbing. Despite their disconcerting nature, the scenes in Florence are some of the best of the series, due to an impressive historical accuracy. Machiavelli is starting to actually be Machiavellian, and the real Savonarola was a powerful demagogue with a fervent hatred of papal corruption, relying on bands of intense children to organize bonfires of vanities, basically any item of luxury. I have to admit that I never knew the origin of that phrase.

While sitting through The Borgias is no longer a painful chore, Jordan seems fixated on making the Borgias sympathetic by showing that Lucretia and Cesare became monsters because they sought vengeance for the murder of their loved ones. The Borgias was promoted as a show about the first crime family, and the real Borgias appear to have been genuinely nasty but the actors do not seem to be willing to adult-up and play scummy criminals masquerading as religious leaders. Instead, they want to better the lives of the poor. The series would work better if the pope was more cynical, since Irons is plausible as a schemer, but not as a true believer. Look at the poster, it says “The Borgias, The Original Crime Family,” not “The Original Well-intentioned Family that Plays Rough When Forced But Otherwise Wants to Help the Less-fortunate Members of Society.”

There is no denying that the second season has been an improvement on the first. Although the series ended with a cliffhanger, and at least one major actor will not return, the key question is whether the third season will build on the momentum established in the second season.