(RNS) In its new Sunday night series, “The Borgias,” Showtime has found the magic combination for ultimate crowd appeal in a scintillating soap opera about a bad-boy pope.
“The Borgias” follows the quasi-historic story of the Spanish noble family who, with the ascent of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI in 1492, brought a nighttime-television-style era of debauchery to the papacy.
The Borgias were infamous for simony—buying and selling church offices and sacraments. In their case, they bought the papacy through bribery and coercion.
But don’t forget the sexual promiscuity, bribery, double-crossing, incest, blackmail, murder, poisoning and all manner of unabashedly sinful behavior.
The debut episodes of “The Borgias” on Sunday (April 3) opened with scenes of intrigue and titillation. Called to the death bed of Pope Innocent VII, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) plots to become the next pope by any means necessary.
Meanwhile, his eldest son Cesare (Francois Arnaud)—an 18-year-old bishop of the church—and his fetching paramour engage in an athletic sexual encounter while his adolescent sister Lucretia (Holliday Grainger) watches through an open window.
Some viewers likely went scrambling to Wikipedia to look up the Borgias during those opening scenes, curious about these cardinals (and popes) who had lovers and children. According to the series, Borgia had numerous children by several mistresses; Pope Innocent VIII fathered a dozen offspring as well. In the 15th century, at least according to “The Borgias,” it was commonplace for Catholic clerics to have mistresses and large families despite their vows of celibacy.
At a time when stories of clergy sex abuse still regularly make international news, naughty popes and Catholic leaders behaving badly might strike a certain resonance with viewers, if fueled by nothing more than a sense of schadenfreude.
As the debut episodes unfold, Rodrigo buys his way to the throne of St. Peter; a cardinal is poisoned at a lavish dinner with other princes of the church; another cardinal is framed for murdering a chambermaid in his bed; and a traitorous assassin is paid to do the Borgia family’s dirty work.
But wait, there’s more: the new pope uses a tunnel from the Vatican to the villa of the murdered cardinal for regular rolls in the hay with his new mistress; his old mistress, meanwhile, promises to remain chaste now that the father of her children occupies the papal throne.
In short, the papacy has rarely looked worse than it does in “The Borgias.” And maybe that’s part of its appeal.
Not surprisingly, the arrival of the tawdry papal soap opera in the middle of Lent did not go unnoticed by the New York-based Catholic League, the perennial defenders of any and all perceived pop culture assaults directed at the Catholic Church.
In recent statements, Catholic League president Bill Donohue questioned why Vatican officials hadn’t formally protested “The Borgias.”
“For one thing, Catholics are used to being slammed by Hollywood, so `The Borgias’ hardly shakes them,” Donohue said. “Catholics don’t expect perfection from (their) clergy. This, however, is beside the point. The most immediate issue is why Showtime decided to gift Catholics with this series during the Lenten season.”
An obvious answer is that this is the high season for all things spiritual. During Lent—with its fasting, abstaining, ashes, rituals and holy days—religion is a hot topic.
The Catholic Church is an evergreen for pop culture clashes. There’s something about Catholicism that seems to lend itself so well to film and television and capture the popular imagination with a kind of passion that, say, Presbyterianism or Lutheranism don’t.
“Well, for one thing it’s colorful—literally. All those cassocks and albs and miters and vestments makes for visually arresting television,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Catholic priest and prolific author of titles such as “A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”
“It’s the combination of power, money, religion, sex and sin. That’s almost unbeatable television, even if it’s not altogether historically accurate.”
Catholicism has that certain something that makes it well suited to vivid (and sometimes controversial) media depictions, said Tom Beaudoin, associate professor of theology at Fordham University.
“Catholicism offers an unusually compelling mix of qualities that is well-suited for media culture: its taste for the ritually spectacular, its evident culture of secrecy, its elicitation and denial of erotic and homoerotic experience, its historic enmeshment with secular power,” Beaudoin said.
“As everyone now knows, this is a tradition both beautiful and dangerous and that makes for compelling media today.”
Beyond all the high church hedonism, there seems to be something else that keeps viewers tuning in to a can’t-look-away car crash like “The Borgias.” Maybe it’s really all about us, and not them.
“There’s a fascination with the sins of the powerful, whether it’s Henry VIII or the Borgias,” Martin said. “It may make viewers feel that our sins aren’t so bad: we sin from time to time, but at least we’re not poisoning our relatives.”