I recently watched the two hour pilot of Showtime's The Borgias (I know, welcome to 2010, Mr. K) and the first two episodes of Roberto Rossellini's Age of The Medicis, which was produced as a three part miniseries on Italian television in the 1970s.
Both shows dealing with politics in the Italian Renaissance, both helmed by talented directors (Neil Jordan serving as the show-runner for the Borgias, as well as director for the pilot), and the two could not be more dissimilar.
The Borgias wavers somewhere between crime drama and sumptuous, sexy costume melodrama. It certainly has its moments (Irons is a little uneven, but he plays Pope Alexander as a charismatic, corrupt man who is utterly sincere about his belief in the power of the Church and God), but, as my Lovely Girlfriend put it, "well, at least during the boring parts, there's something pretty on screen to look at."
Which definitely sums up the aesthetic of The Borgias. Lots of beautiful naked bodies, lots of beautiful clothing, artwork and architecture, plus lots of sex and blood (which is usually deployed in beautiful ways). But also frequently boring.
And while it's never easy to figure out how accurately a pilot represents the rest of a series, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that The Borgias is going to totally do away with the Bloody Sexy History. What's most disappointing about the approach is the way that it just sort of flattens the lechery, venery and blood-lust, when it's all sex and violence, all the time.
In contrast, Rossellini's Age of the Medicis is a much more austere and glacially paced production. Rossellini's favorite device is to stage scenes like tableaus out of Renaissance artwork, with the actors merely an element of mise en scene. Unlike The Borgias, where everyone is usually manipulating or murdering or making love, but rarely working, the majority of the action in Age of the Medicis takes place while people are going about their daily work.
Even as Cosimo de Medici is making his triumphant return into Florence, for example, someone still has to go down to the local pawn shop and redeem his supporters' goods from the pawnbrokers. At one point, the Weaver's Guild commissions an assassin to do away with someone in a nearby town who is infringing on their patents. But that only happens after a scene where they analyze what production technique is being used, who had patented it, examining the recordbooks to see who could have passed along the information, etc.
The Age of the Medicis often feels closer in kinship to one of Peter Watkins "You Are There"-style faux-documentaries, where he approaches hypothetical or historical situations with the austerity and impartiality of a modern-day documentary film-maker.
That's not to say The Age of the Medicis doesn't have beauty. Rossellini's Florence is less ornate than Jordan's Rome, but Rossellini has a better eye for detail in the positioning of groups of actors, the atmosphere of their settings, and he is more adventuresome with his camera, sending it roving through a workshop, or panning across the various factions attending a funeral.
Perhaps the one aspect in which The Age of the Medicis suffers compares to The Borgias is, oddly enough, in its treatment of the female characters. The Borgias' female characters are not given as much to do or as much depth as the male characters, and too much of their characterization depends on their sexual desires. But women are really only extras or bit players in The Age of the Medicis. My guess is that, given that Rossellini's script seems heavily based on primary sources and focused on day-to-day business, it's bias towards the masculine sphere is understandable. At the same time, given the effort put into portraying not only the power-brokers but also the common men and bourgeois, it is disappointing.