On April 1st, Showtime premieres The Tudors, a new historical series drama created by Michael Hirst. It’s the intriguing and – at times – blazingly sexual story of young English King Henry VIII, played with commendable zeal and arrogance by Jonathan Rhys-Meyer, and the goings-on in his majesty’s royal court.
The first episode, airing at 10:00 pm April 1st, begins with the assassination of an English Ambassador in Urbino, Italy by command of the French king. King Henry considers French policies “aggressive” and a “threat to every Christian in Europe” and thus decides he is “just” in going to war with France. But, after making such grave pronouncements from the throne, the King really just wants to “play” and so spends time in his bed chambers frolicking with a mistress, bedding a gorgeous blond.
After sex, he asks her – straight-faced: “how is your husband?”
Whew! The “Young Lion,” Henry, also happens to be married to Queen Katherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), a regal Spanish woman who seems much Henry’s elder. Thus far, Katherine has been unable to produce Henry a male heir, and begs him to return to her bed chamber to try again. In one episode, Henry seems so inclined, until another sexy blond Lady in Waiting catches his wandering eye instead. And since Katherine’s still at prayer, while the cat (or queen’s) away…
Fundamentally, The Tudors is the profile of an intemperate young King, one who is drunk with power. The first episode establishes Henry at play in bed, on the tennis court, and in dangerous knightly jousts (all historically accurate activities of the monarch, by the way). Needless to say, since he’s King, everyone always lets Henry win…and thus he actually believes he’s God’s gift to Earth, and Christendom. In the second episode, when Henry forges an alliance with France and indulges in a wrestling match with the French King, he pays the price for such arrogance and hot-bloodedness. When he loses, he throws a temper tantrum in his quarters, taking it apart like it’s one of Johnny Depp’s old hotel rooms.
The Tudors consists of exquisite period detail, crisp writing and fine performances, and sets up an interesting dynamic among the King’s top advisers. On one hand is manipulative Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neil), a high-ranking clergymen making back-room deals to become the next Pope, and who will do anything to grab and hold power. At this particular time, that means serving Henry, but one gets the feeling that’s really just a means to an end. Another top advisor is Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam), a humanist, idealist and good man who rightly decries war as “an activity for beasts” and says that war costs “ruinous amounts of money” and that Henry would be better off looking “to the welfare of the people.” If you think there’s a metaphor for our times, here in the 21st century, with the Iraq War, you’re absolutely right. Everything King Henry does or doesn’t do is about his “ego” and that reminds me of a certain Unitary Executive who believes he’s above the Constitution. At least Henry is practical (unlike our President): he realizes that to afford a war, he will have to raise taxes. It’s sad when a King from 500 years ago has a better grasp of economic realities than a 21st Century Commander-in-Chief.
Anyway, The Tudors is smart, sexy and literate. I love, for instance, how in one episode, King Henry balances carefully his opposite influences. He discusses, on one hand, Thomas More’s Utopia, which calls to the highest angels of human nature and is an outline of how good human society could be. On the other hand, the King discusses his other favored reading material: Niccolo Machiavelli’s treatise on “realist” politics, The Prince. How many other drama series today bother to so carefully delineate opposing world views? And use such examples?
Also in the first couple of episodes, King Henry faces an insurrection from inside his court, from the bold (but foolish) Lord Buckingham (Steven Waddington). Later episodes involve an English Ambassador, Boleyn (Nick Dunning), pimping out his gorgeous daughters Mary Boleyn (Perdita Weeks) and the mysterious, dark-beauty, Anne (Natalie Dormer) to the hot-blooded King in an attempt to advance the family’s rank and position in court. What’s even more intriguing, and at times funny, is the rapidly shifting national alliances. The King signs a treaty for perpetual peace with France, but when humiliated after the wrestling incident, signs the same treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor. When the Emperor breaks faith, the King wants a new treaty with…France! It’s enough to make your head spin, and makes you realize – oce more – how all these games are about ego, not what’s best for a nation.
Hot-blooded, steamy and witty, The Tudors makes English history come alive in vivid, entertaining terms. One thing’s for certain: this show ain’t boring! It makes a fine companion piece to other Showtime triumphs such as Brotherhood and Sleeper Cell. I’m actually kind of bummed, because my wife and I have greedily devoured the first six involving installments of the series, and now we have to wait for new episodes to premiere. Damn!