Borgias inspire two current TV series

[21 February 2012]

By Rich Heldenfels

Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)

The Borgia family is quite the TV sensation.

Showtime has gotten considerable attention for “The Borgias,” a chronicle of scheming and plotting in Rome in the 15th and 16th centuries; the first season is available on DVD, Blu-ray and downloads, and the second season begins on Showtime on April 8.

But a second series, “Borgia: Faith and Fear,” has been shown in Europe and on Netflix. Its first season arrives on DVD on Tuesday (Lionsgate, 12 episodes, $39.98), and a second season is in the works. Like the Showtime series, it looks closely (and with R-rated content) at the brilliant, ruthless Rodrigo Borgia (played here by the fine character actor John Doman), a Spaniard who became Pope Alexander VI, as well as his son Cesare (Mark Ryder) and daughter Lucrezia (Isolde Dychauk).

“Faith and Fear” comes from writer-producer Tom Fontana, acclaimed for his work on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Oz” and “St. Elsewhere.” He is also at work on projects for BBC America (“Copper,” about an Irish policeman in 19th-century New York City) and A&E (“The Box,” a drama about police interrogations) but not for the broadcast networks he has so often served.

“I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth,” he said, “the networks don’t seem to want to make shows that are outside their comfort zone. But I want to make shows that are outside my comfort zone, so I have gone all over the world in search of people that are willing to take a bigger risk than the networks will.”

He was invited to work on “Faith and Fear,” an international co-production, but added: “I love history and the popes have been something I’ve been fascinated with my whole life, being a Catholic. … It’s been a great ride so far. We’re working on scripts for the second season. We’re going to shoot in Prague and in Rome this year, so it’s cool.”

But what about that other series, from writer-director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”)?

“Initially, Showtime had wanted us to combine the two productions,” Fontana said. “I flew to Dublin to meet with Neil Jordan. We had a perfectly lovely dinner but we realized at this dinner that we wanted to make two completely different versions of this story. From that point on, I just decided to pretend that the other one doesn’t exist. So I haven’t watched it, I haven’t read anything about it. … It’s like when I was doing ‘Homicide’ and ‘NYPD Blue’ came on the air. I didn’t want to watch ‘NYPD Blue’ — not because I didn’t respect (writer-producer) David Milch, but because I didn’t want to be influenced by what he was doing on his show.”

As for “Faith and Fear,” Fontana said: “What I wanted to bring to the program was two keys.

“One was that, if you take faith out of the Catholic Church for a second, what you are left with is the Vatican, Inc. You’re left with the brand, and what the brand sells is salvation. Much better than selling Chevys, it’s selling salvation. People want to be saved for eternity a lot more than they want a new car. So on one element we’re examining the Vatican not as a religion but as a corporation. …

“The other side of it, which is the faith part, I’m also fascinated by.”

Fontana’s shows have often had characters wrestling with their belief in God and he saw in this show a chance “to start with characters with a strong sense of faith who over time lose that, or characters who have no faith and over the course of time gain faith.”

For example, he said, “Rodrigo does believe but he believes in the tradition of the church, not so much the follow-the-path-of-Christ-in-your-everyday-life kind of faith. Whereas, Cesare, I believe, is struggling between this beast and this saint that is within him. And wants to believe but has all these base human instincts. … And then you have Lucrezia, who starts out as kind of a little girl who is going to eventually become more fully aware of herself as a woman and in her faith. So each is on a different journey.”

And what about Fontana’s own faith? “I believe, but I don’t believe every day,” he said. “Sometimes I’m not feeling well and I think there is no God, or a baby dies and I think there is no God. And other days I go, oh my God, there is a God.”

The series has been a hit overseas, Fontana said, and was well received by Netflix users. “It’s in 45 countries. … It was huge in Italy. It was huge in France. Did great in Spain and Austria. … And in South America. I’m a hit in South America. Who knew? At my age (60).”

So he’s thinking about the second season. But the big ideas and stories for all his shows start on the yellow legal pads where Fontana writes in longhand. He has a website, but someone else runs it, and it notes that Fontana does not own or use a computer.

“I’m such a dinosaur,” he said. “My office, when I was going back and forth to Prague last year, forced me to get an iPad, which I call the iThing. To me it’s a monster I wrestle with. I can barely send an email, and I can get the weather and the New York Times.” He laughed. “That’s my entire capacity.”

Of course, he said, he never learned to type, either. Writing in longhand, he said, “is a very sensual experience. There’s paper and there’s pen, and you’re touching something. And you can crumple it up and throw it across the room. … I feel closer to the emotions.”

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