Review: Starz's 'Camelot' & Showtime's 'The Borgias' tell history/mythology as soap opera
"The Tudors" is dead, but its history-as-soap-opera style lives on with two new series debuting this weekend: Starz's "Camelot" (Friday at 10 p.m.) and Showtime's "The Borgias" (Sunday at 9 p.m.). "Camelot" borrows "The Tudors" creator, Michael Hirst, while "The Borgias" airs on "The Tudors" old channel, and both are very much in the same spirit, where history or mythology are largely excuses for whispered palace intrigue, love triangles and as much nudity and simulated sex as pay cable will allow while still leaving time for a story.
There's definitely an audience for that approach, but lord did I find both of these shows tiresome.
"Camelot" is probably the better of the two, though it also has the handicap that there have been so many King Arthur-themed projects lately (including the BBC's "Merlin," which currently airs here on Syfy) that virtually none of it can possibly be new, or surprising.
Still, Jamie Campbell Bower (Caius from the "Twilight" films) isn't bad as the young king, whom we meet as he's having the crown thrust upon him by Merlin (Joseph Fiennes). Hirst and co-creator Chris Chibnall ("Torchwood") have conceived of Arthur at this stage as a wide-eyed kid learning as he goes, and Bower sells both that and those brief moments where Arthur is able to dig deeper and inspire his new army of knights.
And Eva Green is quite good (and also frequently nude, this being a show on the same network as "Spartacus") as Arthur's treacherous, magic-wielding half-sister Morgan. Her character has to constantly shift back and forth between insanity and cunning, charm and anger, and Green makes it all work as a whole, demonstrating the charisma and screen presence she showed back in "Casino Royale."
Fiennes, unfortunately but unsurprisingly (if you've seen him in virtually anything he's done since "Shakespeare in Love," including ABC's "FlashForward"), is a blank, choosing the play the mysterious Merlin largely by growling. And the series as a whole seems much more interested in the love triangle involving Arthur, his bravest knight Leontes (Philip Winchester) and the beautiful Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) than in actually showing the growth of a king. It doesn't help that parts of that story are bizarrely anachronistic, like a scene where Guinevere says of Leontes, "What if he isn't... the one?" (I presume a later episode will feature Merlin telling Leontes, "She's just not that into you.")
Still, the ongoing identity crisis of "Camelot" is a tiny bit more entertaining than the more consistent tedium of "The Borgias," which tells the tale of the infamous 15th century Spanish family, whose patriarch Rodrigo became one of history's most controversial popes. That show has a more impressive pedigree - created by "The Crying Game" director Neil Jordan, and starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo - yet it would be hard to imagine a Hirst-penned version being any different, and Irons seems surprisingly bored by the whole project.
Irons briefly lights up on occasion when he's asked to deliver a joke, like his incredulous reaction when his wife (Joanne Whalley) suggests he will have to stick to a vow of poverty once he becomes pope. A black comedy version of this story, about an incredibly selfish and cruel man somehow ascending to the holiest job on the planet, would be a lot of fun, but those moments are few and far between. It's a very straightforward, sincere, dull accounting of all the trouble caused by Rodrigo, son Cesare (Francois Arnaud, frequently nude), daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) and company cause with their newfound power and station.
Of course, I felt exactly the same about "The Tudors," and that show ran four seasons. I'm not the target audience for either of these new series. But when I saw that Jordan and Irons were involved, I allowed myself a scintilla of hope for "The Borgias," only to be rewarded in much the same way the College of Cardinals was when they wound up anointing Rodrigo.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org