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NEWS/Daily Kos: A Tale of Two Borgia TV Shows: As Usual, Americans Get the Inferior


Mar 31 2014

Wisdom tells me it's ridiculous to get worked up over entertainment, and I do realize the silliness of it on its face...if not for a few painful cultural and political implications that motivate me to talk about this.  Basically, there are two premium cable TV shows currently on air about the Borgias - Canal+'s Borgia: Faith and Fear, and Showtime's The Borgias.  One of these shows is a shockingly intense, powerful, deeply-acted, intricately-scripted work of genius giving truly mesmerizing insights into the period, the society, and the individuals depicted, and the other is a standard TV show that relies on formulaic exposition and dumbed-down plotting to make a dizzyingly Byzantine setting more familiar to infantilized audiences.  One is arguably on par with, if not exceeds Game of Thrones in its depiction of feudal skullduggery; the other trivializes its subject to an extent more fitting to a soap opera.  Guess which one is targeted at Americans?

Now, before fans of the Showtime series get offended, let me make it clear that I'm not judging - and can't possibly judge - the series against the standards of normal television programming: Both are lavishly-produced premium cable shows focused on historical events without too horribly mangling their details, so that alone places them both far beyond what is normally put in front of TV audiences.

But the difference between them is even starker - Borgia, the French/German production on a European cable channel, captures the equally gruesome and intoxicating lust for power among Renaissance church authorities with an infectious potency.  Blood pumps through the veins of the characters, will and fear burns behind their eyes, and by seeing it in action, you understand the siren song of Glory that fills their imaginations and perverts their deeds.  The Borgias on Showtime, meanwhile, seems more like a set of historical facts crammed into convenient screenwriting boxes, chopped into convenient episodic sub-plots, and acted out by characters who exist only to serve the writers' plots rather than their autonomous motivations.

Given the relative star power invested in the Showtime series, with no less than Jeremy Irons portraying Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), the schism in acting quality is all the more excruciating to realize.  Although you may recognize a few of the actors in the European production on sight - e.g., the actor playing Rodrigo was Rawls in HBO's crime-drama masterpiece The Wire - not many American viewers could call to mind their names.  Many are yeoman actors known far more for their indelible performances than for themselves, and Borgia: Faith and Fear certainly adds to the stature of several.

There also seems to be a major divergence in the quality of on-set leadership inversely proportional to star power: No less a name than Academy Award-winning writer/director/producer Neil Jordan is behind the Showtime series, while the respected but relatively anonymous Tom Fontana helms the Canal+ program.  I've never personally been a fan of Neil Jordan, and watching The Borgias, I'm reminded of the fact that I actively dislike every film he's ever made, finding them rhythmless and hollow - a pattern I see being repeated.  I know relatively little about Tom Fontana, and yet I'm in awe of this series he's created - in awe of its intensity and the passion on display by the actors bringing it to life.

What's also shocking is the raw carnality of the European production compared to the Showtime series, given the complete absence of legal or corporate obstacles to showing sex and violence on a premium cable channel.  In fact, violence in premium-cable historical dramas is often taken to cartoonish lengths in service to childish aesthetics, but in most cases even when it's graphic it's not actually violent - it's combat choreography and CGI blood-spatter ballet, with the heart-rending chaos and upsetting callousness of real violence surgically removed.  I don't know whether to credit the Showtime series with having less violence than its competitor, or discredit them for trivializing what violence they do show in the same way they trivialize the entire Renaissance world.

But though violence is frequent in the European series, it's never a joke, a cheap plot device, or a matter of course - it's an unfolding and intensely personal cataclysm based on the choices the characters make: Characters with imperfect knowledge, incomplete self-control, long history behind them, and uncertain future ahead of them.  Genuine monstrousness is uncovered beneath apparent mediocrity, and humanity revealed beneath corruption - but not because a writer finds its useful to play tricks with his characters, but because these qualities are already there in the characters as envisioned (and perhaps as historically occurred).  We are made to realize, disquietingly, that no great malice, greed, or especially evil disposition is needed for one person to destroy the life of another - just mere disregard.

There's an equally stark contrast in terms of showing sexuality: Borgia frankly depicts the human body in various states of nudity and pleasure, and does so in a way that actually conveys a human experience taking place.  If actual arousal isn't taking place - and it very likely is - then the actors, makeup artists, and cameraman are true geniuses in the level of detail to which they go.  The version of the series intro currently on Netflix makes this abundantly clear, showing for a few seconds a woman's heaving, perky breasts with erect nipples and writhing mid-section.  You have to actually see it to understand that it's far more realistic and sexualized than most of the empty nudity and mechanical humping shown on American premium cable and R-rated movies.

Which brings me back to the Showtime series.  It's not that there's anything unusual about de-sexualized sexual content - quite the contrary, it's standard for programming targeted at American audiences.  As with many Showtime programs, we are shown sculpted, immobile breasts on bodies posed as if for a photo-shoot or moving according to an instruction manual rather than behaving according to the demands of passion - mere visual information with no emotional or even animal context.  Unfortunately, it's not the raw mechanics or images of sex that awaken puritanical instincts, but passion - the raw, powerful, overwhelming cascade of experiences that sexuality produces - so it is naturally those which are filtered out of content in order to make it more widely palatable.  The sexual experience, and not the empty mechanics, is what threatens to upset the applecart of a passive consumer audience who is far more useful with dulled senses than awakened ones.  It isn't possible to become desensitized to that kind of image - to see passion is to feel passion, or at least to feel its heat.

And for some reason, even on premium cable networks, either Americans don't want to see that or the people who rule over our media don't want us to see it.  Maybe both.  Maybe we have a culture of anesthesia, reflected in our increasingly sense-dulling "music," mindless alpha-wave TV programming, and dopamine-amped food.  Maybe we desire to turn pleasure into a button to push rather than an experience to undergo.  Or maybe that's just what the people who sell us this crap want for us, because robots make a more reliable consumer base, and people whose emotions have been degraded to a handful of basic behavioral triggers without all that messy thought and feeling surrounding them are easier to predict and control.

But I can't, and don't, buy that it's a coincidence that every time similar content is approached in two different ways for Americans and for international audiences, the people designing it for US consumption choose to dumb everything down, rob sex of its sexuality, and turn violence into a cheap visual gag reel because some formula says that you need a fight scene in act so-and-so.  And even if there is some native, self-reinforcing demand to be spared from having to feel anything, I think the vast majority of this phenomenon is just media companies doing what they find most convenient, knowing that most US audiences will never be exposed to alternatives.  Only those who put forth extra effort to find programming that Europeans are surrounded by will even know it exists.

As far as I know, the Canal+ show - which is in English, BTW - is not available on any US network; there are no clips of it on Hulu; and even on Youtube, there are only a handful of few-minute trailer clips (none of which are very good representations), and most of the written descriptions for them (and miniscule smattering of comments) are not in English.  I've never seen it advertised anywhere, ever, and yet I regularly go to sites where ads for shows like Game of Thrones and The Borgias are normal to see.  How did I even find Borgia?  Luckily I didn't have to move to Europe, subscribe to Canal+, and learn French so I could understand their programming guide.

Instead I searched on Netflix for The Borgias - a well-advertised program I'd heard about from multiple sources, created by a network with at least some record of delivering quality content (Dexter and Weeds being prime examples) - but instead I was directed to Borgia because Showtime apparently hasn't authorized Netflix to stream its program.  I must say, I am very glad that Showtime hopped on the bandwagon of greedy content-owners withdrawing from Netflix in search of higher profit margins, or I would never have found the alternative.  It hadn't been suggested to me, wasn't in my queue, and (if I recall) didn't even show up under a category-wide search of historical dramas - I only found it because I was looking for its inferior imitator.  And this pisses me off.

It royally pisses me off, because it's part of a much larger pattern: A pattern of "adapting" foreign films and TV shows to American audiences so that our precious consumer hypnosis will not be disturbed by being exposed to other cultures and time periods.  A pattern of refusing to promote and distribute wonderful movies and TV shows in the US simply because they're not about the US, leaving American audiences completely ignorant of the wide world of entertainment opportunities.  A pattern of creating inferior knockoffs of profound works by stripping away all but the most superficial plot points and then cramming them into a cliched formula script.  This is why American audiences know of the Meg Ryan / Nick Cage pile of dogshit City of Angels, but not the sublime German film Der Himmel Uber Berlin that it was based on - and even those of us who've seen the latter know of it under the name "Wings of Desire," because that sounds more appealing to English-speaking audiences than the actual title.

When a foreign TV show is a spectacular success among critics internationally, do US channels try to acquire it in order to show it to US audiences?  Hell no.  They buy it so they can eviscerate it, throw the script into their turbo-charged de-soul-inator, churn out some formulaic pablum set in the US - god forbid American audiences know other places exist - and then hire a bunch of American actors to act in it.  I'm glad that occasionally this works out for the best, like with The Office - the British original was brilliant and caustic, and the US show is brilliant and heartwarming, and they're both worthwhile.  I love The Departed a lot more than the Hong Kong film it was based on.  But more often than not the results are an unsurprising abomination - shit flowing out of a "creative" process designed to remove rather than add quality content in search of depraved Marketing Department fantasies of universal appeal.

The way these companies' ideology works, one would think the perfect program would be to simply stream out each individual person's idealized mirror image at them 24/7.  But when that ideology fails - when people prove to be more complex than the cynical calculations used to control them - the entertainment industry does what every corrupt ideologue does: It tries to blot out awareness of the messy realities it has proven itself incapable of adequately handling.  Audiences with mass exposure to high-quality content just get more demanding, which makes the industry have to work harder to meet expectations - so it's far easier to just smash expectations with a wrecking ball of persistently bad and mediocre output, and count on their monopolization of media to reduce the flow of quality programming to a trickle.

And all of that would make perfect sense in this case if Showtime depended on advertising revenue, but it's a premium cable network.  So why did it make that series instead of just buying and promoting Borgia?  I don't know what the respective histories of the two series are - whether their creation had any kind of relationship at all, or is simply coincidental.  Supposedly Neil Jordan had been trying to make a movie about the Borgias starring - LOL, I'm not kidding - Colin Farrell and Scarlett Johansson: Two actors whose presence surely screams "Renaissance Italians."  Yeah, that's Neil Jordan for you - he's Michael Bay with an eye for frivolous melodrama.

But for some bizarre reason this brilliant idea failed to pick up steam, and he ended up selling it to Showtime as a TV series replacement for their even more embarrassing pseudo-historical drama Tudors.  Maybe it was Canal+ who did the copying, and they just got lucky to hire the right talent to exceed their competitor.  Or maybe it was the other way around, like so many times in the past, and the outcome was indicative of the process by which it came about.

Whichever the case, the pattern continues: Europeans are exposed to an intense, profound, engrossing, and well-crafted television series that is enlightening, inspiring, and disturbing, and Americans are given another ensemble-cast premium soap opera.  I only hope Canal+ makes another season of Borgia before Showtime ends their version of the series by having the Pope sitting in a diner listening to Journey.  I will say one thing for this country: Tom Fontana is American and Neil Jordan is Irish.  Now if we could just get around to having studios not run by limbically brain-dead sociopaths, we might be able to build an actual culture for this country.