Posted on Friday, February 18th, 2011 at 3:14 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: s.e. smith
Hold on to your hats on 3 April, because the Borgias are coming to prime time. Showtime announces that ‘The Borgias will be a complex, unvarnished portrait of one of history’s most intriguing and infamous dynastic families.’ Not content with US remakes of European television, apparently we’ve moved on to US remakes of European history. After the success of The Tudors, Showtime has obviously scented money in the water and it’s willing to back it up with serious investment, with an up-front order of 10 hour long episodes that can’t come on a cheap budget when you’re talking about depicting the circles of power in 15th century Italy. Gilt alone is probably going to run them more than I make in a year.
Starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and tantalising us with creative talent like Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), the show promises to be filled with epic storylines, because the Borgias were no slackers when it came to leading action-packed, duplicitous, and scheming lives. US audiences appear to have recently acquired a taste for high-flying historical dramas, something audiences in places like Britain have already been enjoying for decades. I’m placing bets on The Romanovs next, given that the tragic downfall of royal dynasties is part of the appeal. We like royalty here, but we don’t like to let them get too royal.
Opening with the crowning of Rodrgio as Pope, The Borgias is clearly going straight for the juicy stuff, knowing full well that audiences don’t tolerate tedious games of political chess. The real-life Borgias feature a cast of characters anyone would drool over, including, of course, the luscious, mysterious, and much-maligned Lucrezia. Will the show go for Lucrezia as popularly conceived, hip-deep in poisons and intrigue, or the political victim many historians suspect she actually was?
Let alone the stories–intrigue, backstabbing, incest, and simony, if contemporary accounts are to be believed. Given that history is written by the victors and the Borgias turned out losers, it’s advisable to take at least some of the claims made about Italy’s most notorious crime family with a grain of salt–but it’s pretty clear the Sopranos have nothing on these people.
There are some interesting parallels between the current taste for opulent historical drama swirling around the lives of the rich and famous, and trends in reality television. Both involve famous people behaving badly, with a healthy side of sex, politics, questionable monetary activities, and forceful personalities. Both also play heavily on themes of wealth and power, whether they feature wealthy people or people made wealthy through their participation.
And both are heavily scripted, shaped by the networks to project particular images. Scripting goes beyond adjustments for the purpose of narrative flow and keeping audiences engaged, and plunges directly into shaping the story and how people perceive it. There are a lot of different directions to take histories like that of the Borgias, intertwined with wealth, power, political intrigue, and ultimate collapse.
Will the series be a cautionary tale about political abuses, perhaps especially timely in a post-Citizens United world?
In the United States, political power and advancement are very much determined by access to wealth and connections, rather than merit, a problem that is only becoming more pronounced with the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor. Even as The Wall Street Journal bemoans the tragic pay gap in big law firms, where some associates only pull down $5 million annually instead of $10 million, millions of people are without work, making minimum wage, struggling to survive on dwindling government benefits.
Or will The Borgias be another circus people will devour in lieu of bread, without a passing thought as to who’s got the bread and what they’re doing with it? The question is, how long will people in the United States be pacified by pop culture? Even a largely apathetic populace must be able to reach a tipping point somewhere.
US viewers rarely want to engage with the class problems going on in society right now, but they do like to see the rich and famous look bad on television. Our class rage is subverted into gleeful viewing of shows like The Tudors, knowing full well that the characters are riding for a fall. Viewers may be introduced to them at the height of their power, but ultimately they know the lives of the people on the small screen are only going in one direction, and that’s down.
The Borgias bought, cheated, stole, and probably murdered their way into power, which makes for pretty exciting television. But where are The Banks, The Insurance Companies, and, of course, The Lobbyists?
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