Ellen Gray: 'Borgias' vs. 'Kennedys': 'Borgias' wins

Katie Holmes (center) portrays first lady Jackie Kennedy in the ReelzChannel eight-part miniseries.
Katie Holmes (center) portrays first lady Jackie Kennedy in the ReelzChannel eight-part miniseries.
Posted: March 30, 2011

THE BORGIAS. 9 p.m. Sunday, Showtime (10 p.m. on subsequent Sundays).

THE KENNEDYS. 8 and 9 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday of next week, concluding at 8 and 9 p.m. April 10, ReelzChannel.

WHEN THE History Channel announced more than a year ago that it was planning its first scripted project, a miniseries on "The Kennedys," it promised a "Godfather"-style approach to the story of a political dynasty.

Showtime, meanwhile, was awaiting "The Borgias," a series about an older political dynasty that's said to have actually inspired author Mario Puzo's mob saga.

Even if you could watch both - depending on how your TV is delivered, that's a big if, now that History's out and the less-available ReelzChannel has "The Kennedys" - wouldn't it be easier to rent "Godfathers" 1-3?

It would.

But having seen all eight episodes of "The Kennedys" and four of "The Borgias," I say: Leave the Kennedys, take the cannoli. Along with "The Borgias," which is also delicious.

But if you do abandon the romp through more recent history for the Renaissance it shouldn't be because of any supposed bias on the part of "Kennedys" exec producer Joel Surnow ("24"), whose status as a Friend of Rush Limbaugh may have led to pressure on History to first tone down and ultimately to jettison a project that was never going to please all of the people, anyway.

If those who commissioned it didn't know that the Kennedys, impassioned and imperfect, remain one of the third rails of American politics, they have no business working at a place called the History Channel.

Surnow may not be the subtlest storyteller - have you seen "24"? - but only someone who demands hagiography could consider "The Kennedys" a hatchet job, despite the odd shot at unlikely targets, including Joe Kennedy Jr. (Gabriel Hogan), who's depicted as a bit of a jerk before being killed in action, and his mother, Rose (Diana Hardcastle), who twits Jackie (Katie Holmes) about, of all things, her weight.

There are drive-by allusions to the president's (and his father's) extramarital affairs and to drug use, as well as hints of what some have alleged to have been a relationship between his brother Bobby and his widow Jackie after JFK's assassination, but with another crisis, whether marital or missile, always just around the corner, "The Kennedys" seldom lingers long in any one place.

At its most cohesive, the miniseries feels like a bromance in which JFK (Greg Kinnear) and Bobby (Barry Pepper) break free of their manipulative father, Joe Kennedy Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) to save the country from Communists, racists and Sam Giancana (Serge Houde). With the exception of a flashback to the unfortunate Rosemary, their siblings get short shrift. (If Ted Kennedy, who was elected to his brother's former Senate seat in 1962, is even in this, I missed him.)

Ultimately, though, "The Kennedys" is a high-speed chase through 30 turbulent years, punctuated by impersonations, some better than others.

Kinnear is pretty good and has the look down cold. Pepper lacks Bobby's looks but captures some of his expressions. Wilkinson's terrific.

Despite his stint on "24," I have no idea why anyone would cast Chris Diamantopoulos as Frank Sinatra. But at least he doesn't sing.

Katie Holmes, who looks so perfect in the posters, fights valiantly to hold on to Jackie's odd, breathy accent for the entire series but never quite succeeds in making us forget how hard she's working at it.

Accents are the least of their worries over at Showtime, where Englishman Jeremy Irons and French Canadian Francois Arnaud are playing Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia, the father-son team of outsiders who muscled their way to the top in late-15th century Italy, when Rodrigo was Pope Alexander VI and Cesare was made a cardinal.

If I enjoyed "The Borgias" more than I did Showtime's previous historical drama, "The Tudors," it's no doubt partly because I knew so much less of the actual history going in.

Writer-director Neil Jordan's first foray into series TV is everything you'd want in a premium-cable costume drama: lush, romantic, violent, tragic, funny - and far enough in the past that few of us are likely to argue, for instance, that the notorious Lucrezia Borgia might not have been quite as beautiful as Holliday Grainger, the actress who plays her.

With a nine-episode first season covering a relatively short period, it also goes deeper than "The Kennedys" possibly could.

"I tried for nine years to try to get it going as a movie," Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Michael Collins") said in an interview in January. "When Showtime said, 'Make this,' I just felt I was very lucky . . . I think it's found its ideal form, really.

"Even with 'Michael Collins,' which was a huge historical period, shoved into a 2 1/2-hour movie, you kind of can't do justice to the history within a movie. The minute I began to write these scripts and expand the movie script I'd written, I suddenly thought, this makes much more sense." *

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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