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Sword-and-sandal epics on HBO, Starz, Showtime go where mainstream TV fears to tread

In 30 years spent inhabiting characters on screen, on stage and on film, Colm Feore has seen some extraordinary moments.

Beating bruiser Vin Diesel in the action flick Chronicles of Riddick. Playing a doomed first gentlemen to Cherry Jones' president on 24. Leading a corrupt police department against Angelina Jolie in Changeling.

But few of those triumphs compare to his first rehearsals playing Cardinal Della Rovere beside suave, charismatic leading man Jeremy Irons on The Borgias, Showtime's epic examination of one of the most corrupt papacies in history.

"At one moment, he came up and kissed me hard on the mouth. . . . I didn't bring any acting (chops) for this," Feore said, laughing. "But it suggested part of the danger and excitement where we were headed. This was something new."

Indeed, The Borgias won't be anything like your grandma's historical drama.

Focused on a family that ran the Vatican like its own personal piggybank — with corruption so ruthless it inspired author Mario Puzo's Mafia clan in The Godfather — Showtime's retelling is packed with the same sex, violence and sordidly humanizing intrigue that made a hit of its previous excursion into Renaissance soap opera, The Tudors.

The Borgias is just the tip of this swashbuckling trend. On Friday, Starz unveiled its newest take on a long-ago legend, tackling a new version of Camelot featuring Joseph Fiennes and Casino Royale beauty Eva Green.

On premium cable heavyweight HBO, sword and sorcery geeks are fired up for the April 17 debut of Game of Thrones, a mythical medieval fantasy focused on the struggle for an all-important kingdom. It feels suspiciously like a certain J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired film trilogy.

Thanks to critical and commercial smashes like Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings, premium cable is going where traditional TV fears to tread, opening up its wallet and jettisoning censors for a new-school look at old times, which may say more about modern society than anything in our past.

THEN AS NOW

"All films about the past are also films about the present . . . The history they present is like a veneer; you peel it back, and you see today," said Margit Grieb, director of the film studies certificate program at the University of South Florida.

So Starz's Camelot becomes a parable on the price of leadership and the need for good men to take control in turbulent times, with Fiennes' Merlin pushing a reluctant Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) to fight Green's manipulative Morgan Pendragon for the throne of England.

Thrones is a story of warring dynasties and power struggles that could offer lessons on everything from modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the current uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

And The Borgias offers Irons, as a pope with two mistresses and three children, willing to marry off his daughter for political alliances and kill a guest from the Middle East to earn her dowry. Expect critics to draw parallels ranging from the Catholic Church's handling of its sex abuse scandals to the unlikely ascension of the current German-born pope, Benedict XVI.

"We're always looking for answers, and its doesn't hurt if it comes with a dollop of historical fact," said Feore, a Shakespearean-trained actor who sees The Borgias as a meditation on what can happen to venal men when they're given immense, near-absolute power.

Standing alongside Irons with a concept developed by film director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) as executive producer, Feore sees The Borgias as the best of both worlds: a film-style treatment of weighty subjects with a TV series' length.

"We need context and a distance . . . (viewers) can say it's us, but it's not really us," he said. "(Thirty years ago) people would have thought this was Caligula and run like crazy. I would love to believe the current interest suggests a maturity in the audience and intelligence that demands this kind of programming — which satisfies some of the basic entertainment tenets that people should be naked and someone should die."

Small wonder then that Camelot gives us an Arthur who dreams of explicit sex with a topless woman emerging from the sea, or Showtime's Borgias offers R-rated scenes of the pope quenching his more worldly desires.

"(These shows) have this appealing blend of sex, blood and political intrigue — all of these things which make for great TV," Grieb said. "There's a little bit of myth blended with some history, wrapped up in this eye-catching spectacle where they can use special effects. It's almost a recipe for success."

SlEIGHT of hand

It's the moment of which epic dramas are made: Fiennes' Merlin bounds up to the classic castle of Camelot, a Roman-built seaside structure covered with ivy and weeds — a majestically crumbling base for his effort to retake the British throne.

And all of it, except for the actual gates Fiennes and his crew ride through, are computer-generated images.

"When some people saw the first episode, they asked me 'Where's that location? I want to visit that castle,' " said Carmi Zlotnick, managing director for Starz Media. "Well, there's no part of that exterior which exists in reality. In the television world, that's a remarkable leap forward."

Such advances, along with a few clever uses of old-school camera trickery, can stretch production budgets far enough to compete with big-screen visuals.

And while Zlotnick admitted that the success of Starz's previous "sword and sandals" epic, Spartacus, did help pave the way for Camelot, the executive sees their efforts more as an attempt to hitch the channel's brand to known stories few other TV outlets might tackle.

"We know we're an upstart in the pay TV world, so pre-existing brands are a little easier to market and a bit easier to get the audience's mind around," he said, noting that past Starz series include versions of the hit film Crash and novelist Ken Follett's 12th century epic, Pillars of the Earth.

"There's no evidence King Arthur actually existed, so we're not trying to establish some sort of historical legitimacy," he said. "It's a bit of taking the elements and pieces we really love about the story and . . . setting them in a context that resonates with contemporary society."

Such productions often require sleight of hand among filmmakers, who ground the show in tiny, authentic details to make some of the larger leaps in storytelling easier to swallow.

This, too, has a film precedent. The Lord of the Rings offered painstaking detail in medieval-era weapons and costumes — right down to characters' broken and dirty fingernails — to make the world of hobbits, demonic orcs and winged dragons feel more realistic.

"I think they use dirt in general to lend realism," joked Grieb, who also noted British accents tend to make productions feel foreign to American audiences, even if they are set in Italy, like The Borgias, or a mythical land, like Game of Thrones.

Regardless of the details, such productions bear the unmistakable stamp of modern times, surely as the close-cropped hairstyles and sleek, pinup-ready looks of actors in '50s-era sword-and-sandals movies marked their moment of creation.

"When we go back to those films, we still date them as '50s representations of times 2,000 years ago — you can see the 1950s in their images, even though the film is supposed to be about a long time ago," she said. "Right now, we can't pick out the items in these modern shows that history will say dates them. But I'm sure whatever they are, they will speak volumes about who we are today."

Reach Eric Deggans at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/ media.

The Borgias debuts at 9 tonight on Showtime. (TV-MA)

Camelot airs at 10 p.m. Fridays on Starz. (TV-MA)

Game of Thrones debuts at 9 p.m. April 17 on HBO. (TV-MA)

Sword-and-sandal epics on HBO, Starz, Showtime go where mainstream TV fears to tread 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 5:30am]

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