I’m a sucker for historical drama. Maybe it’s because I never paid attention in high school history class, and these vast re-tellings (for all of their historical inaccuracies) serve as my personal “History for Dummies” guide. Maybe it’s because I love those glorious costumes and settings that speak of a time of more grace and pageantry.
Anyway, in our household on Sunday evenings we’ve been in a bit of a quandary. When 8:00 p.m. comes round (we live in the Central time zone) we are faced with the choice of two grandly staged historically-based television series. It’s not so much a question of what to watch (because we eventually will watch them both), but what to watch “real time” and what to TiVo for later consumption.
Showtime is in its second season of The Tudors, a lavish production starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a younger (and a bit too buff for the 16th Century) Henry VIII. HBO, doing its bit for American history, has been featuring John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, against the backdrop of this country’s earliest days. It’s an interesting study in contrasts, as John Adams mainly focuses on the inner workings of a new nation, its politics and the varying (and conflicting styles) of the Founding Fathers, and The Tudors tends to focus on the seamier side of Henry’s court: intrigues and love affairs. The Tudors has its political side but it's couched in intrigues and back-stabbings; power grabs and sex. Lots of sex. John Adams thinks with its head; The Tudors with its heart (and regions a bit lower). It’s almost as if the tone of each series reflects its protagonist: the frenetic Henry VIII vs. the more ploddingly, and decidedly unsexy, John Adams.
Full disclosure: I am not a history expert, nor even a history buff really. I enjoy the history and historical insights I glean from literature, but I can neither vouch for, nor really care, about the historical inaccuracies in either series. I mean, unless they’ve got it really wrong, which I don’t think they have (as a history non-expert). I have been enjoying both series; however, because the Adams series simply moves at a slower, more sedate pace, I have to confess to a slight preference for The Tudors.
There is edginess to The Tudors that draws you into the action; everyone has an agenda, and you never quite know (except for a few of the main characters) just what they will do. Or how. But you will know why. No wonder Shakespeare had so much fun with characters of this era.
Henry, himself, is a brat. But a brat with absolute power – a dangerous combination if ever there was one. Rhys-Myers scowls and bellows like a spoiled child denied his favorite toy. But instead of holding his breath until he turns blue, Henry disenfranchises, imprisons and otherwise does away with his opponents.
Even when he is with his beloved (for the moment) Ann Boleyn, you get the sense that he might tire of her on a moment’s notice as he had with Katherine of Aragon. Rhys-Meyers voraciously overacts, in my opinion, in contrast to pretty much everybody else – all rage and excess. It could be the character, presenting all of his cards, wearing his heart and emotions on his sleeve in contrast to the manipulative chess playing of the Boleyns, particularly Thomas, Ann’s Machiavellian father.
Last season, Sam Neill played the devious and corrupt Cardinal Woolsey, chancellor to the King. Woolsey died in prison (whether he committed suicide as implied by the show is a matter of controversy). This season, Peter O’Toole has joined the cast as the Pope, threatening to excommunicate Henry for divorcing Katherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (yes, that Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.)
None of the characters in The Tudors are particularly heroic, nor particularly likeable. Sir Thomas More is beautifully underplayed by Jeremy Northam (who is seen far too infrequently these days in film). More was a man of scruples; a devout Catholic, and the man who wrote the Utopia, and was friend to Renaissance philosopher Erasmus. He was a lawyer and both teacher and friend to Henry – as well as his chancellor (after Woolsey’s demise).
When Henry breaks with the Church, More resigns rather than serve his self-interest, pledging his allegiance to the Church, and at great risk. He warns of a king who feels himself answerable to no one but God, who is above morality and can set his own rules. But More, for all of his ethical ideals, fought the reformers, burning heretics at the stake. So not even the heroic More is, well, heroic.
It sounds as if I don’t like it. And by all accounts, I shouldn’t. I like my heroes flawed, but essentially decent (even if that decency is well suppressed). But I do. Like it, that is. I don’t necessarily pour over every scene, TiVo it and re-watch it 11 times to get the minutest nuance. (As I am known to do with House). But like I said, maybe it’s the display; the pretty costumes, the gorgeous musical score, or the soap opera-ish way in which it’s all packaged. Sort of like Dallas goes to the Renaissance Faire. It just clicks for me. I only wonder how (if the series goes on another year or two) how they’re going to make Rhys-Meyers look portly!
John Adams, on the other hand, is full of heroes. Patriots, even. But it all moves along at an almost too leisurely pace, especially in contrast to the Tudors. Eschewing some of the more iconic and clichéd scenes of our nation’s birth, it tells the story of Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin through back rooms, and back yards; meeting halls and private conversation.
John Adams is portrayed as a sort of everyman: an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary times. He is contrasted to an intellectual and brooding Thomas Jefferson (British actor Stephen Dillane is perfect in the role), a brilliant and condescending Benjamin Franklin (played another Brit, Tom Wilkinson), and a slow-of-speech, but effective George Washington (David Morse, who I last saw as Javert-like Michael Tritter last year on House. Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, and is portrayed more the latter than the former, and with a bit of an inferiority complex. His wife Abigail (Laura Linney), providing him with both emotional support — and policy advice — is an equal partner (as equal as women could be back then) in this marriage.
Paul Giamatti, an actor of substantial range, plays against type, presenting a frumpy and ill-at-ease man a bit out of his element. But his John Adams is filled with emotion burbling just below the surface. He is self-aware, knowing (maybe all too-knowing) of his shortcomings, but not without his own bit of arrogance (after all, he was President of the United States.)
As I watch John Adams unfold, I can’t help but think of our country now, 230 years removed from the historical events portrayed in it. Fears of the Founding Fathers about too much power concentrated in the Capitol (and in the presidency); fear of making the wrong alliances for either the wrong or right reasons resonate even in the 21st century. The resistance to back the French in their revolution (even though it was inspired by our own) because the new nation did not want to be seen by England as anti-monarchy, and the fear expressed by Adams and others that the United States would be wanting for the lack of a King’s strong hand, suggested a nation still struggling in its new skin.
I am enjoying this series, particularly as the other characters become more and more fleshed out. Being a Thomas Jefferson fan (hey, even though I didn’t pay attention in high school, I did take a Masters degree in political science) I would have liked to see his character even more fleshed out from the enigmatic, quietly intense persona portrayed on the small screen. The pace at times is too slow, and the accents a bit labored as the American actors attempt to emulate the transitional rhythms and shapes of early American speech (since we have no way of knowing exactly how it sounded). As with The Tudors, the musical score is gorgeous with its blend of the baroque classics and early American music.
The Tudors and John Adams portray two very different worlds of power and society, set nearly three hundred years apart. I can’t guarantee the historical accuracy of either series, but both are entertaining and enlightening each in their own way.