“The Borgias,” Showtime’s lavish costume drama about the poisonous family that put the machiavelli in Machiavelli, handily beats “The Tudors” and “Rome” in premium cable’s bloody-history sweepstakes.
Written and occasionally directed by Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”), the nine-episode “Borgias” begins in 1492, when the New World is little more than rumor. Tightening his grip on the Old one is Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons), a cardinal and patriarch (the two were not then exclusive) who bribes his way into the Vatican as Pope Alexander VI.
The white smoke has barely risen from the Vatican chimney before Papa Borgia begins conspiring with sons Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Juan (David Oakes) to consolidate the clan’s power inside the Vatican and out. Cesare (the inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Mario Puzo’s Michael Corleone) recruits assassin Micheletto (Sean Harris) when Borgia hands can’t be bloodied.
Even sweet little sister Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) plays her part in the family’s political machinations. History tells us she won’t stay that way for long, and “The Borgias” delights in building up -- and rewarding -- our anticipation.
The four episodes made available to critics introduce not only the men of the family, but their various consorts (Joanne Whalley as the matriarch and Lotte Verbeek as the mistress) and their rivals (chiefly, Colm Feore as a cardinal determined to rid the Vatican of all things Borgia).
Art-directed down to the last detail, “The Borgias” is cloaked in crimsons and purples, looking far more lush than anything outside the pay-cable wall.
Newcomers Arnaud and Grainger make terrific impressions as the brother and sister whose kisses linger a breath too long. Irons, too, is wonderfully shaded as a murderous pope who may yet find Jesus.
“The Borgias” airs Sunday on Showtime at 9 p.m. New York time; 10 p.m. on subsequent weeks. Rating: ***1/2 stars
The ads for AMC’s wrenching Seattle-based murder mystery “The Killing” ask, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” -- a campaign clearly meant to invoke that other Pacific Northwest whodunit from two decades ago. But the otherworldly “Twin Peaks” was a universe away from the somber realism of this riveting new series.
Adapted from a Danish series by writer/producer Veena Sud, “The Killing” weaves three storylines -- family drama, police investigation and political scandal -- springing from the murder of a 17-year-old girl. The premise is grim, and “The Killing” never glosses over the horror. “Cold Case,” this isn’t.
Investigating the crime is police detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos of “Big Love”), a single mom whose plans to quit are derailed with the murder. She’s partnered with the obnoxious detective (Joel Kinnaman) recruited to replace her.
Political intrigue arrives when city councilman (Billy Campbell) is drawn into the mystery after the girl’s corpse is discovered in the trunk of a car registered to his campaign. Urged by his staff to exploit the tragedy for political gain (as I said, grim), the politico instead takes the high road. Still, there’s something not quite right about him...
The series’ emotional center is the girl’s family (Brent Sexton plays the father, and a heartbreaking Michelle Forbes is mom). For much of the pilot episode, “The Killing” keeps Rosie’s parents happily in the dark. The happiness disappears. The dark stays.
“The Killing” airs Sunday on AMC at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2
Starz serves up yet another B-grade costume soap with the Arthurian legend “Camelot,” staying true to the cable channel’s now-familiar sex and swords formula. If it’s not quite as gratuitously gory or smutty as the “Spartacus” franchise, it’s also not as much fun.
Renaissance Faire finery, buxom maidens, bare-bottom knights and cheesy CGI effects hold interest for an episode or two. The mediocre cast doesn’t do much to retain our interest: Jamie Campbell Bower makes for a rabbity King Arthur, Tamsin Egerton is a charmless Guinevere and Joseph Fiennes, as a buzz- cut Merlin, does little more than glower, perhaps contemplating the road from “Shakespeare in Love” to mumbling lines like “Fate can go begging -- destiny has to be won!”
“Camelot” airs Friday on Starz at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: **
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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