Sunday premiere: The Borgias

Have you noticed that all the big noise Canadian TV premieres are suddenly all over on specialty? Wipeout Canada gets off to a flying start Sunday on TVTropolis, Top Chef Canada comes to a boil April 11 on Food Network, The Kennedys start their campaign next Sunday, April 10 on History Television and the $40M+ historical drama The Borgias launches Sunday at 10 p.m. on Bravo!
Not that long ago, big ticket productions like The Kennedys and The Borgias would have exclusively launched on mother networks Global and CTV. But with shows like American Pickers (watch for Canadian Pickers to launch April 12 on History) and IRT: Deadliest Roads drawing twice as many viewers on History than original Canadian dramatic fare like Shattered did on Global, programmers are happy to let their big guns fire over on the free money tap specialty brands.
The Borgias is the latest sword and sandals epic, arriving just in time for viewers missing their fix of The Tudors. It stars Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, a scheming Cardinal who basically buys his way into the papacy as 15th century pontiff Alexander VI.
Shot in Hungary, taking full advantage of the rural countrysides just outside of Budapest–as well as the mammoth Korda Studios, where The Borgias was spread over five soundstages–the series is Neil Jordan’s baby. The Academy Award-winning Irish director (The Crying Game) has been trying to make a movie out of the saga of this notorious family for a decade. When it was finally suggested to him that it would make a fine series over at Showtime, he sat down and wrote the first nine episodes–by himself.
Jordan also directs the first two hours. That’s how much I’ve seen of The Borgias. Irons is suitably malevolent–he looks more and more like Karloff every day–and brings much needed stature to the roll. Young Canadian Francois Arnaud plays eldest son Cesare and gets the lions share of the action. Holliday Grainger (Merlin) plays infamous Lucrezia Borgia; she’s a little too school girly in th early going. Dependable Colm Feore is outstanding as Cardinal Della Rovere, Borgia’s nemesis. Feore is a worthy adversary and brings holy conviction to the role.

There is a lot of plot in the first two hours, which bogs down at times. It is all beautifully shot, with the most impressive star being Francois Seguin. He’s the French Canadian production designer responsible for the magnificent sets. There is some CGI work used to fill in some of the backgrounds but most of The Borgias is shot on standing sets designed by Seguin and built over a matter of months in Hungary.
I had a chance to walk the exteriors built just beyond the soundstage walls. Watch Sunday’s opener and be impressed. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day but Seguin managed to build a 15th century facsimile in a matter of weeks. 
I interviewed Irons in Pasadena last January on the TV network press tour. He’s a lot less menacing in person; in fact, he’s downright friendly. You can read that story here in The Toronto Star.
Feore and Arnaud I spoke with last October in Hungary while on a visit to the set. Feore is such a Renaissance man he belongs on this set. Read more about both of them here in this story I wrote for The Canadian Press.
RATINGS UPDATE: The Borgias opened big on Showtime, boasting the U.S. premium cable network’s best ratings for a new drama series in seven years. Roughly 1.5 million Americans caught the series Sunday night according to Neilsen overnights.

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