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Cardinal's sins: Showtime's The Borgias charts a treacherous path to Popedom

Thou shalt not . . . oh, never mind. Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons) and his mistress, Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek). Showtime photos

Premiering: Sunday, April 3rd at 8 p.m. (central) on Showtime. Continuing at 9 p.m. for eight more Sundays
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Colm Feore, Francois Arnaud, Joanne Whalley, Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Lotte Verbeek, David Oakes, Sean Harris, Derek Jacobi
Produced by: Neil Jordan

The Holy Father as The Godfather -- just what the Catholic Church needs at the moment.

Latter day priests and, in some cases, their superiors, are perceived by many as a collective group of pedophiles. Now Showtime's The Borgias, premiering Sunday with a two-hour splash, revisits the not so golden olden days of the late 15th century by presenting the Pope and his offspring as "The Original Crime Family." Thou shalt not? It doesn't work that way with Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) and his brood.

He's not Rodrigo Borgia for long. Old Pope Innocent VIII is dying in a sea of iniquity, gasping rhetorically, "Which of you will wash it clean?" Not Cardinal Rodrigo, who's already primed to buy the votes of his colleagues with varying offers of land, treasure and promotions. His chief henchman is oldest son Cesare (Francois Arnaud), a sitting bishop.

"We have placed the papal mitre in the hands of an ape," arch rival Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) laments after the deed is done.

He's being too kind. As the first four hours show, Pope Alexander also authorizes assassinations of his enemies and has a mistress named Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), whose marriage is on the rocks. He beds her after first watching Giulia demurely flagellate herself in punishment for her sins. Later in these proceedings, Giulia sits very publicly by his side while the Pope presides over the mandated marriage of his only daughter, Lucretia (Holliday Grainger), to a guy who's really an ape.

His wife, Vanozza (Joanne Whalley), mother of the three other Borgia children, has been disinvited to her daughter's wedding because, well, it would be "scandalous" for her to be there. Entertainment at the reception includes a bawdy, topless sketch. Ah, the good old days of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, has said that his master novel was influenced by how the Borgias handled their affairs. It's easy to see the parallels. Cesare is Sonny Corleone while his younger brother, Juan (David Oakes), is something of a Fredo who messes up an assassination attempt. Youngest son Joffre (Aidan Alexander) is the innocent Michael at the moment while Lucretia is married to an abusive pig, as was Connie Corleone.

Feore's Cardinal Della Rovere essentially is a rival gang leader who's determined to overthrow Rodrigo and make himself Pope. Or if you prefer, he looks to be something of a hapless Cliff Barnes destined to never win a big one in his never-ending conflict with J.R. Ewing.

The Borgias begins in 1492, the year in which Columbus allegedly discovered America and a year after the birth of England's future King Henry VIII, whose reign spanned four seasons of Showtime's The Tudors.

Despite all the aforementioned intrigues, The Borgias so far isn't quite as bawdy, foul-minded or over the top as its predecessor. It moves more deliberately, sometimes a bit ploddingly. Irons of course lacks the inherent sex appeal of The Tudors' Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an uncommonly lithe Henry VIII. But the old pro from Old Vic is throughly comfortable in costumed dramas, seeming far more suited to crowns and robes than suits and ties. Such times call for aplomb. And Irons delivers when told that plots again are being hatched against him. "Oh, what would Rome be without a good plot?" he asks in turn.

The Borgias isn't always convincing in its plot turns. A hired assassin named Micheletto (Sean Harris) supposedly has endured a full day's worth of torture at the hands of Cesare Borgia without giving up the secret of who poisoned an old Cardinal. But his handful of back lacerations, administered by Cesare to dupe Cardinal Della Rovere, hardly qualify as convincing proof. Later on, the pillow-smothering of another Borgia victim is accomplished in remarkably quick fashion.

It's all sanctioned by the Pope, who looks the other way while managing to steer clear of any redeeming qualities. Make of it what you will. For the purposes of executive producer Neil Jordan, who also wrote the first four hours, The Borgias constitutes a free pass to add and subtract at will.

"I don't claim to be telling a completely factual tale; that's for textbooks," he says in Showtime publicity materials. "This is a suspenseful crime drama based on real characters and events. I have a rapacious thirst for historical material, and if something sets off my imagination, I use it."

So it shall be written. So it shall be done.