You might think a ten-part series about a young Henry VIII would be a stodgy affair, given our popular perception of the English King as a man of considerable girth with a bad marital track record. The Showtime series The Tudors, premiering tonight 10 PM EDT, handily shatters any such notions. As portrayed by Johnathan Rhys Meyers, Henry is a vibrant, athletic sovereign, as consumed with his libido as with affairs of state.
The series opens with the assassination of Henry's uncle in Italy by French assailants, thus setting the tone for what follows. Henry and a hastily called council decide there is no course for England but to war against France. The King leaves it to his councilors, particularly his Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill) to work out the details. Henry has more pressing matters to attend, mostly involving sex with various ladies in waiting, tennis matches with assorted dukes and earls, and the occasional joust against pretenders to the throne.
Actually, it's a bit more complex than that. The first episode, by necessity, loosely sketches a tableau of palace intrigue, ambition and deceit, with characters whose agendas seem oddly familiar to a modern audience. Henry is in a loveless, questionably legal marriage with Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), whose loyalties appear more rooted to her Spanish relatives than to Henry. Cardinal Wolsey has Papal ambitions that appear to outweigh his loyalty to the King, while Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam) envisions a Utopian future for England. The Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington) sees himself as the rightful heir to the throne, and conspires to thwart Henry.
This would all seem a bit on the soap opera-ish side were it not for the fact it's all rooted in historical fact. This is not a 21st century version of the early reign of Henry VIII, as some have suggested. By all accounts, Henry was a robust, athletic man at this stage of his life, and Rhys Meyers plays the king with a nonchalant air that belies his steely resolve in maintaining his throne. In fact, all of the principals play their parts convincingly, shunning the melodrama frequently seen in historical pieces. The dialogue may be modernized, but it only serves to make the story flow more smoothly. This is a story that moves at a pace sinilar to The Sopranos, with plot twists happening when you least expect them.
If I have any quibbles about the premiere, it's only that 16th century England looks too pretty–even the peasants look robust, and the skies are always azure blue. Still, that adds to the regal nature of the show, and somehow lends an aura of credibility to the dark intrigues simmering just beneath the pastoral facade. You just know that bad things are about to happen.
If the premiere episode is any indication of where the next nine episodes are headed, Showtime may have a major hit with The Tudors. Expect Emmy nominations all around.