Ugh, This Show

I don't know if it's crass or cheesy or perfectly acceptable to write about a tv show. I also don't know that I care, because every time I watch an episode on Netflix I am left breathless and wide eyed.
Dear Reader, I am sorry (not sorry) to do this to you, but I have to make this statement: 

Borgia is possibly the best serial show I have seen since I graduated college. Its third and last season is on Netflix now and I am hoping it will be like one of those amazing albums you purchase from your favourite band and none of the songs are less than fantastic. Over an hour ago I finished watching episode 8 of season 3 and I cannot stop thinking about it. The last movie that made me feel that way was Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and my enthusiasm was met with the same blank stares I received when I rhapsodise on Borgia. Seriously, I have recommended this show to everyone whose opinion matter. I wait with bated breath for someone, anyone to say to me "HOLY SHIT YOU WERE RIGHT, THIS SHOW IS STUPENDOUS!"
Our Thanksgiving is so much better than yours.

Please do not confuse this show with Showtime's The Borgias starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia although that's what started me on this journey. I was on a flight from Portland and one of the shows available to watch was The Borgias. As an art history major and just a history-geek (flouncy dresses and men in tights get me every time), I gave it a shot. Since Jeremy Irons was in it, I figured it had to be decent, but it just seemed like a soap opera set in Italy during the Renaissance. There were whole scenes that brought my belief in the story to a shuddering halt because all I could think was, "that would never happen."
When we came home, I turned on Netflix and the first thing suggested to me was "Borgia." Okay, I thought, I'll give it another shot. Then I was wildly confused because the Lucrezia I remembered looked nothing like the Lucrezia on screen. It was a different show.
Now, as in all systems of duality, lines have been drawn, camps formed and sides picked. There are people out there who feel Jeremy Irons makes a far superior Pope Alexander VI, and were dismayed by John Doman's American accent. They picked out all the inaccuracies of the Canal+ version and threw their hands up in disgust.
Jeremy Iron's fans, if you are reading this, I just want to say that I understand. For a long time I cherished Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, munching on through its chemically orange creaminess that I told myself was cheese. Who knows why we cleave to substandard and low quality things? I don't think you're bad people, or stupid for preferring the Showtime version. But I will state in all certainty, just as homemade mac and cheese is miles better, Tom Fontana's Borgia is the better show.

Tom Fontana, associated with shows like Oz, and St. Elsewhere, skimmed the cream of Europe’s talented crop of actors and stuck them all in a film studio in Prague, surrounded by sets of the Vatican pre-renovation and Europe pre-science revolution.

A few times I've mentioned that I'm an art historian/history major. This field of study has been described as useless and poor-paying. Sure, if you're in it for the money, you're in for a long wait or nasty surprise. Here's what it is good for: staring at beauty for hours, for days, for years, for a lifetime. Study the genius of Albrecht Durer, discern the beautiful lines of Florentine masters and soak in the colours of the Venetians; be stunned as to how Michelangelo could see his subjects encased in marble and how the impressionists saw colour in the shadows. Of course I could go on and on, but once you learn how to see beauty and genius, and how it has documented history and cultures past, you see it everywhere.

I write this because it is evident to me that Tom Fontana is either deeply in love with beauty, or has hired a small army of art historians. The set is so lovingly constructed, with the old basilica of S. Peter's a crumbling mass of antique devotion, and the apostolic palace a dizzying world of tile, frescoes and candles. Every scene looks like it’s lifted from my Survey II class when I was constantly worried my professor would go into cardiac arrest, so passionate was he on the subject.

The characters eat bursting globes of grapes, fowl with crispy skins, and drink wine from delicate, ornate glasses, poured from delicate spun carafes. I confess that watching an episode, and seeing them drink deep draughts, makes me very thirsty for some Sangiovese, or Chianti.

The costumes are outrageous, a true display of peacocks trying to outdo one another with the display of wealth and power. Yards of velvet, sheets of brocade, rustling silks all crafted into bulbous sleeves, swishing coats and robes that drag on the ground with a carelessness that speaks of the chests of gold in dungeons. The cardinals strive to pass themselves off as humble messengers of Christ, working to better humanity. Yet there's something about the way they stand in their red robes, trimmed with snowy white fur, gold chains and bejewelled crosses dangling from their chests. They clearly believe that they are masters of their world, cocooned in wealth and the ability to do whatever the fuck they want.

And then, of course, there is the beauty of the Italian peninsula, that needs only the sun setting or rising on it just so and I understand fully why Italians are so in love with beauty and stuffed with pride for their lands of origin.

Resting on this foundation is the most bat-shit crazy story I’ve ever watched. Three seasons of pulling, and pushing; scheming , plotting, double-crossing and all for the sake of family. All these wielders of power do it for their own variation of immortality: Naples safely in the hands of the Carafa family, Rome equally divided between Sforza and Orsini, Borgia holding the reins of Spain and a united Italy. These aren’t just families in the sense that we have families today: barely tolerating your douche bag uncle and his wife who may be just this side of alcoholism, grinding through the painful ordeal of Thanksgiving where your inadequacies give you indigestion as your annoyingly perfect cousin shines the whole fucking night.
These families are clans; they are tribes; little nations who have become accustomed to running the show since Hadrian was emperor. Everyone burdened with the name Calabria, Orsini, D’Este, Borgia, Sforza, or Varnese must put all of their actions to bettering the situation of their family. Therefore, what I’m really watching is the beginning of the Mafia, and it’s an origin story that’s so shadowy and a little vague, but when I catch a good look of it, I have to gasp. Borgia slides in so neatly as the middle chapter of power-broking between HBO’s Rome and The Sopranos (though I don’t know Tom would thank me for saying so).

This is why the writing is so good: the cast is almost a United Nations in its diversity. An American playing the ultimate patriarch, a Frenchman and an Irish lad play his two sons and his daughter is a German actress. But at least once per episode I find myself slapping the arm of the futon exclaiming, “That is so Italian!” Their passions rise, tempers flare, women are treated as precious baubles and yet are the fierce mothers of legend

For Tom Fontana, this was so clearly a labour of love. I get the sense that he did everything he possibly could to produce something that would be a jewel in his crown. He says in his interview with the A.V. Club that working with his European partners left him stunned by the amount of creative freedom he was given. That really shows. The Borgias was a Showtime creation and therefore had to hear out executives who, honestly, seem to quake with fear that we won’t like them. So they pumped it full of material they felt would work because it worked before. For me, that’s exactly why it didn’t work. The Borgias felt tremendously predictable, and everyone acting true to form. I never felt sympathy for any devils, never saw the glint in the eyes of any hero. Showtime didn’t appear to trust its viewers to handle more complex subjects, or to get the poignant, dramatic beauty (I’m sorry to overuse that word, but this show is seriously saturated with it) that lies in humans being humans.  Fontana, by contrast was trusted, and so then trusted us with some heavy subject matter.

There is violence in the series, and unhealthy amounts of sex. But it’s not laid on with a trowel, I never felt like Fontana should scale back. The grisly executions are sickening, but not ever embellished and the message I always receive is that man’s violence doesn’t need to get special treatment. The first public execution is of a man planning to poison a well. They splay him out on a rack, completely nude  (and that nudity isn’t denied us, it makes us aware of just how low this man is) and then smash his body over and over again with a hammer. The crowd cheers and shouts, but some of them cover their eyes and the man screams and makes noises that dug up my breakfast and sent it swirling in my stomach. I couldn’t really watch the whole scene, and when his executioner stands before the crowd, his face spattered with blood, I felt horror.
I wasn’t disgusted with the treatment of this violence. I wasn’t disturb by the loving, fascinating method some directors celebrate violence.  I was just brought face to face with the worst of everything about us. This happened Tom seemed to say, we did this.

And the sex scenes were so very grounded. Not the glamorised scenes you get from Hollywood where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. No, sex is a little gross, a lot of pleasure, and something that drives all of us. Again, there’s a trust in the audience to follow to some deep dark places within and to acknowledge that this is what it is to be human.

This is a bit of a heavy-handed love letter for a show, I know, and I apologise once again for submitting you to this. But I haven’t felt so jazzed about a creative endeavour since… I was 19. If this spurs you to watch Borgia then I will be over the moon. I’m not nearly done with the subject, we haven’t even talked about the characters, so stay tuned and WATCH BORGIA!


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