|Jeremy Irons as il papa: Don't touch his junk, hear?|
A: Take advantage of the screen in the confessional and stab him in the eye with a stiletto.
History fans will be pleased to know that the producers of The Tudors have debuted a series on late fifteenth century Italian politics, religion and family governance issues that make your problems look ridiculous. The Borgias stars Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, or Pope Alexander VI, father of Cesare (pronounced CHAY-za-ray) and Lucrezia, reputed to have been incestuous lovers. Certainly the series has strongly hinted at incest: how many grown-up brothers stroke and kiss a sister on her wedding night? I ask you.
So far, it is 1492 or so, and we have met Niccolo Machiavelli, who is working for the King of Florence; an anonymous Native American snatched by Christopher Columbus; the serial killer son of the dotty and deaf King of Naples (this happy princeling displays corpses in his own little rotting Last Supper tableau); too many scheming cardinals to name; and Savanarola, a Dominican friar who looks like Uncle Fester. You don't even have to look it up on Wikipedia to know that this latter fellow is heading for a heresy trial and worse. However, if you do click on that link you will find that Savanarola was not only excommunicated and tried, but racked mercilessly and then burned into bits too tiny to be used as relics, which served him right because he may also have been responsible for the first act of institutional homophobia. In true Foucauldian fashion, prior to burning him, "the torturers spar[ed] only Savonarola’s right arm in order that he might be able to sign his confession." Brilliant. I wish I had thought of it myself. They knew how to keep order in the fifteenth century.
The success of such shows is part of an interesting phenomenon: the rise of religion on TV. In a recent post about Friday Night Lights, another one of my favorite shows, Flavia writes about unusual it is to watch a television show about modern life that takes Christianity for granted. "All of the characters appear to be nondenominational Protestants and some of their churches are clearly megachurches," she notes; "but nothing about their religiosity is depicted snidely or ironically or played for laughs. At the same time, the church-goers aren't romanticized or presented as unusually good people. They're just people: flawed, complicated people, trying to live up to their professed pieties. And as realistic as all that sounds, I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything like it on t.v."
That might be right, and may say something about the ways in which subcultural Christian media are going mainstream. Army Wives certainly has its moments where it is clear that God is lurking in the background; and Big Love has introduced a popular audience to the intricacies of the Church of Latter Day Saints. But shows like The Tudors and The Borgias go one step further and teach a lesson about what religion, and the political struggles that revolved around the evolution of Catholicism and Protestant dissent actually have to do with how world history unfolded. A keen watcher of The Tudors, for example, would think about how one lived from day to day in a culture that was framed by the mandatory celebration of key moments in the life of Christ. No sooner was Christmas over than one began prepping for Lent; following Easter, the various days of obligation and days of ascension never stopped until a good Christian was getting ready for Advent and gearing up for Christmas again. As the series progressed, moreover, a non-specialist understood that casting doubt on the deference of Kings to the Pope pretty much put every other fixed principle in play, particularly the "natural order" of gender that would ultimately result in England getting her first Queens and the eventual rule of commoners over both church and crown.
So far the most interesting thing I have learned from The Borgias, other than how to kill people with whatever tools the fifteenth century made available, was that back then the Pope had to be examined after the election to make sure he was actually a man. This had to be one of the worst jobs in Rome: crouching under a cleric's icky business to make sure he had, as the examiner announced,"Dos testiculos" (this was how they put it on Episode One) or "two balls, and they are well-hung," as I have found it described on several web sites. There is some disagreement as to whether this ritual actually happened or not: apparently this had to do with Pope John VIII, a superb intellect elected in 855, who turned out to be Pope Joan. Rumour has it she was discovered after she gave birth in the street during a papal procession and was executed, with her lover, on the spot. (I know: scholars who really know this field are going to ask me why I would go to a website called Papal Trivia: Fun Facts About the Popes for my information.)
Like The Tudors, The Borgias is also about how political structures and organized crime are more or less interchangeable forms of domination. The latter show is particularly striking in this regard, as the actors keep dropping family names that we are actually familiar with from The Sopranos. In other ways, The Borgias is just another juiced up soap opera that makes it clear how difficult it is to run a family when you are responsible for the spiritual and political fate of the known world. This responsibility requires dropping several bodies in every episode. In episode four, we see a garroting ("you use a cheese cutter," the assassin explains to Cesare, who has never seen someone dispatched this way), a stabbing, a snapped neck, and a poisoning gone wrong that has to be finished off with an inexpert smothering. These things must be done, there is no question, lest the Church fall into the grip of folks like, say, the Medecis, who in 1492 were still running a bank in Florence and biding their sweet time.
One of the show's signature moments, used in all the ads, has Rodrigo staring into the camera (this is early in the first episode, right after Cardinal Borgia has given Cesare his marching orders for how to buy the papacy) and murmuring intensely: "I will not forgive failure!" This sums it up: what responsible father of successful children would forgive failure?