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Posted at 06:46 PM ET, 01/12/2012

Winter TV Press Tour 2012: Jeremy Irons charms everyone on ‘The Borgias’ panel

Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and Francois Arnaud as Cesare Borgia in ”The Borgias.” (Jonathan Hession - SHOWTIME)
After celebrating the conclusion of the broadcast-network portion of Winter TV Press Tour 2012 — when reporters went all “Lord of the Flies” over the racial and skeevy sex gags in CBS’s “2 Broke Girls” — sated TV critics moved on Thursday to the next station of the TV Cross: Press Tour — The Kissing of the Premium Cable Ring.

“Take that, ‘Downton Abbey’!” cracked Showtime programming chief David Nevins after screening clips from the upcoming season of “The Borgias” on his network.

Nevins’s new series is based on the Borgia family and stars Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI — a.k.a. Roderic Llançol i de Borja (Borgia) — who was some kind of big noise in the late-15th and early-16th centuries.

Critics had no issues with the language, violence, skeevy sex here — it’s pay cable. That said, one critic did seem somewhat taken aback by a device on display at the back of the room — several props and costumes had been brought as audio-visual aids — and wanted to know whether Showtime intended to actually demonstrate the genitalia-related device during the upcoming season.

Yes, said exec producer James Flynn, who explained that devices like that were used in those days to help those suffering from venereal disease.

But when you’re kissing the premium cable ring, you tend to focus more on questions about whether “The Borgias” is the “ultimate 1 percent vs. 99 percent story.”

Jeremy Irons during “The Borgias” panel. (Eric Charbonneau - SHOWTIME)
“All people in positions, comfortable positions of power — and I think a lot of your Republican nominees at the moment — can get completely out of touch with reality of how it is in some parts of the cities, in the country you’re hoping to govern,” said the Oscar-winning Irons, baiting the mostly American crowd. That’s not easy to pull off when dressed as Emily Bronte’s tortured hero, Heathcliff — rough brown scarf nestled in the neck of a soft white shirt under sturdy brown vest, rough-hewn pants tucked into sturdy boots.

“You see it time and time again in history. It is the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. But it always has been,” Irons said.

No one took the bait — too hard when mouth is busy kissing the ring.

One TV critic did note that the show “crystallizes why I left the Catholic Church” and wondered what Irons would say if he had to defend, in court, the actions of the pope.

Irons smiled his beautiful ironic smile, and fluttered his gorgeously long, thin, expressive hands as he explained that, back in the late-15th, early-16th century, the pope was “more of a monarch than a pope.”

“God, up there, was a given,” he said, but, that aside, the world had to be ruled, power had to be exerted, alliances had to be made, children had to be married to make those alliances.

“He behaved as a president now, or a king in the Middle East — an ayatollah — behaves now,” continued Irons, adding that he thought the question a little like “asking of Queen Elizabeth II if she’s upset when she sees a production of ‘Richard III,’ who also behaved badly.”

No one took that bait either. This ring kissing is pretty mentally taxing stuff.

Critics, however, were interested in finding out how Irons got cast as voice of the bar rag on “The Simpsons.”

The bar rag started out as an ancient Egyptian tapestry, Irons explained. But, by the time it gets to the present day, it is just “a little bit of bar rag.”

“I was delighted to do it and I was honored to be asked,” Irons said.

But, persisted critics who know the germ of a great story when they hear one, how did he come to be asked?

“There was a telephone call and I was asked would I do it?” Irons said.

By  |  06:46 PM ET, 01/12/2012

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