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TV Weekend: Camelot and The Borgias

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I’ve had arguments over the years with friends and colleagues who liked The Tudors better than I did, and their disagreements generally boiled to the charge that I was holding the show to an unfair standard. Namely, more or less: expecting it to be good. The Tudors, beyond a lavish attention to detail and some stabs at political intrigue, wasn’t really trying to be that: it was a chance to see depraved Elizabethans kill and shag each other, with extra layers of ruffles and corsets to remove before the latter. On that level, it delivered, and seeing Jonathan Rhys Meyers chew scenery like a turkey leg was beside the point.

Two new costume dramas, Starz’s Arthurian story Camelot and Showtime’s papal-intrigue sudser The Borgias, debut this weekend with the same kind of expectations to be overcome, or preferably suppressed. (That’s right: the same weekend as The Kennedys, there debut a series about Camelot and another about a rich family buying power. Coincidence… or conspiracy?) On a sheer swords-and-skin level, fans of The Tudors (or Starz’s Spartacus) might enjoy both. For me, they were mainly history repeating.

Even on the level of it’s-just-entertainment, Camelot (which debuts tonight) is exceedingly silly. The story begins at the beginning, with the death of King Uther Pendragon, which inspires wizard/counselor Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) to seek out Uther’s son Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower)—raised by a surrogate family, not knowing his heritage—to become the king who will unite Britain. The early episodes make the expected pit stops—the sword in the stone, the perfidy of Arthur’s sorceress half-sister Morgan (Eva Green)—and they play something like a CW soap with magic and nudity, with Arthur as the aw-shucks humble kid who goes off on an awesome adventure.

But neither script nor actors forge a connection with the characters, who are neither traditionally epic nor creatively reimagined enough. Fiennes’ Merlin is a bland cipher, Campbell’s Arthur a pretty haircut with no spark and Green a preening villainness given to horror-movie histrionics. (Only Rome’s James Purefoy as warlord King Lot is really enjoyable here.)

There are occasional clever twists on the legend—an amusing spin on the real story behind the Excalibur feat, for instance—but mainly the show plays like a modern soap in costume, taking characters with modern psychology and dressing them up in fairytale clothes. (At one point Arthur’s future queen Guinevere, betrothed to another, worries “What if he isn’t the one?” Even if the language weren’t anachronistic, the mindset is, which is the bigger flaw.) It’s a Camelot only for those who like camp a lot.

The Borgias, about the wealthy family who bought the papacy for its patriarch Rodrigo (Jeremy Irons) in 1492, is the better (and less unintentionally funny) of the two. It’s also the more seemingly calculated: everything about it screams that Showtime was looking for another deliciously corrupt family to do some of that Tudors stuff, but with different outfits in another country. (If the Medicis do not have a deal, they really should fire their agent.) It ticks off every box: ascension to power, religious intrigue, political intrigue, sexual intrigue, gold, murder, robes and disrobing. With writing and directing by Neil Jordan and Irons in the lead, it has pedigree and promise.

And yet The Borgias, besides the glaring Tudors parallels, is one of those shows that seems like it might actually be better if it were worse. The production is lavish—you can feel the velvet and smell the incense—and while I’m not a historical authority, from a casual cross-check it seems to be fairly faithful to historical timelines and details. But what works best about it worked almost precisely the same way in The Tudors, especially the maneuverings among allys and disappointed rivals, here in the College of Cardinals rather than the English court.

The show’s overall feel, though, is more somber and at times even sour. I have to wonder whether part of the problem, ironically, is that Irons is playing Rodrigo / Pope Alexander VI too well: he’s dry, somber, subtle and businesslike, whereas Rhys Meyers essentially made Henry VIII into a lusty bad-boy celeb with a crown—it may not have been great acting, but it worked for what The Tudors was. It can be fascinating to see the way the well-lubricated Borgia money machine works the levers of Vatican power (the early going is an education in the uses of the word “simony”).

But in the early going, The Borgias, like Rodrigo’s victory, felt to this viewer like a lavish but joyless affair. Maybe in this kind of drama, trying to be too good is the cardinal sin.