Holliday Grainger, Francois Arnaud, Jeremy Irons and David Oakes in "The… (Showtime )
I was a fan of "The Borgias" during its first season, even though creator Neil Jordan occasionally got tripped up as he jumped from big-screen movies to writing a weekly TV series.
Based on the first four episodes of the new season, I'd say Jordan has figured things out. "The Borgias" (9 p.m. Sunday, Showtime; 3.5 stars out of 4) still overflows with delicious intrigues, sex and deadly politics, but it now has an energy and constant forward momentum the first season lacked.
Last season we saw Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons, still great) scheme, blackmail and even murder his way to becoming Pope Alexander VI, but now he's having trouble keeping the pointy hat on his head. King Charles of France (Michel Muller), Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore) and the duplicitous Sforza family threaten his papacy from the outside. Meanwhile, tensions between his children, Juan (David Oakes), Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), could undo everything he's built from within the Vatican walls.
Those hostilities play out in taut, pulse-pounding scenes that should have viewers shouting Hail Marys.
Perpetual screw-up Juan and vengeful Cesare start off the season with a spark as their sibling rivalry explodes into a sword fight and a tense horse race. Cesare has more than Juan on his mind, though, as expands his guerrilla missions against the pope's enemies with "God's own assassin," Micheletto (Sean Harris), at his side. These three men grow darker and more dangerous in the new season, delivering shock after shock in early episodes. Arnaud, Oakes and especially Harris are riveting.
The ladies have a lot more going on as well. Whereas last season they seemed more pawns in the sexploitations of Rodrigo and others, this season, as the song goes, "sisters are doing it for themselves." (Don't worry, Rodrigo does take another mistress or three this season. Sex is still on the Vatican menu.)
Lucrezia, her mother Vanozza (Joanne Whalley) and the pope's mistress, Giulia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), ascend to more lofty positions, scheming together and separately and providing wonderfully tense and quite comical moments. Grainger adds new depth to her character as Lucrezia adopts the murderous extremes of her brothers.
"Extreme" seems to have been Jordan's key word as he worked on the new season. "The Borgias" is back with more drama, sex, violence and betrayals than ever.