WHEN | WHERE Sunday night at 9 p.m. on Showtime

REASON TO WATCH Showtime returns to the Renaissance.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Borgias of 15th-century Rome originated in Valencia, Spain, and achieved prominence in the Vatican and as patrons of the arts. The most famous Borgia, Lucrezia, was to become synonymous with the femme fatale. Two others became popes -- Calixtus III in 1455 and his nephew Alexander VI in 1492.

The reign of Alexander (Rodrigo Borgia) was reputedly born of simony, while his enemies attempted to get the King of France to invade Italy and depose him for crimes of immorality. Rodrigo's son, Cesare, was apparently a model for Machiavelli's "The Prince."

Father and son's story is the one Showtime explores. Innocent VIII is on his deathbed, and the College of Cardinals is about to elect his successor. Rodrigo (Jeremy Irons) decides to buy their votes. Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) lays the groundwork for Borgia's ouster, but the new pope has an ally -- his son, Cesare (François Arnaud), who's a genius in the art of court intrigue. Young Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) bears witness to her family's duplicity.

MY SAY Viewer skepticism is expected and encouraged whenever a pay-cable network gets its mitts on period dramas, with the concern here that the House of Borgia is about to meet the House of Hefner. Even the promotional tag, "Sex, Power, Murder, Amen," insists every overheated cliche about the Borgias will be turned into squalid papal porn for your viewing pleasure.

But "The Tudors" was good and so is "The Borgias." Slow at points, talky in others, the details are immaculate and the acting first-rate. Irons' Rodrigo is an unsettling and persuasive blend of malice and piety.

Of course, who knows whether any of this is historically accurate. Mario Puzo spent a good part of his career writing about the Borgias ("The Family") and per literary lore they inspired even "The Godfather." If this hooks you, maybe he's a good place to turn for guidance.

BOTTOM LINE Engaging, well done and very pretty to look at.


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