Hoping to capture some of the critical laurels of HBO's lavish period-piece Rome (while garnering the buzz and ratings of HBO's iconic The Sopranos), Showtime premiered The Tudors last April, a lusty, fast-moving 10-part series detailing the sexual and political escapades of 16th century England's Henry VIII. Re-imagined from the traditional movie representations of Henry (think portly and imperious) as a whipcord thin, fiercely emotional monarch, the Henry of The Tudors preens and struts about the luxurious sets like a rapacious punk rocker, with shorn hair and various leather get-ups that emphasis is outre sexuality. Deliberately designed as a soap opera for grown-ups, The Tudors works well as TV eye candy, providing plenty of nefarious, double-dealing subplots and tons of cable-ready sex, fitted into a souped-up, historically suspect framework. And on that level, it succeeds quite well. But those looking for anything other than surface characterizations and the thinnest of motivations will find The Tudors a pretty, but empty, vessel.
Henry VIII has always been a reliable movie subject because writers see within the monarch's real-life lusts and passions, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes and scenes that make for exciting drama. And The Tudors is no different. Even if you don't have the faintest idea of English lines of kingly and queenly successions (I know I took it in college, but quite honestly, it's all a blur now), most of us know Henry VIII and his pursuit of the comely Anne Boleyn - while still married to the inconvenient Catherine of Aragon, the former wife of Henry's brother Arthur. In a word, it's a "natural" for the screen. A romance that could be labeled coarse melodrama in a purely fictitious work, is given the sheen of "worthiness" due to its historical importance (England's break from the Catholic Church was driven by many factors, but none more directly than by Henry's battles with the church over his divorce).
The Tudors, quite unabashedly, pulls out the sexual elements of this historical story, and frames the entire miniseries around this sensuous theme (violence, curiously, is largely left out here). The creator and writer of the series, Michael Hirst (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), has stated in interviews that he looked to American soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, as well as The Sopranos, to figure out how to structure The Tudors for television. And certainly, stylistic elements of both of those disparate forms of television serial show up here, from the elaborate tit-for-tat pacing of the various family squabbles and revenges perpetrated by the attractive cast (Dallas, most certainly), to the notion of corruption, both personal and cultural, infusing relationships and superceding any higher emotions, with the deleterious effects felt for years and years afterwards (The Sopranos).
If you caught the Showtime promos for this series, the links with the American prime-time soaps was pronounced, and on that pulpy, entertaining level, The Tudors closely follows the Dallas model. This is melodrama, pure and simple, with a goal of giving the audience vicarious thrills as we watch powerful people act like power-hungry, money-grasping, sex-obsessed humping animals. And for the most part, The Tudors is quite good at delivering the goods. Attractive, accomplished actors engage in suitably modern cable sex at the drop of the hat (at least one or two R-rated sex scenes per episode), while the political, religious, and romantic subplots, simplified and reshuffled from the historic record for dramatic convenience, simmer and boil in the background.
But for all the mentions of The Sopranos by the writer, producers, and by Showtime, The Tudors doesn't come close to that morally ambiguous, narratively complex drama. For all its re-imagining into a 21st century cable TV drama, including making Henry young and sexy, and throwing out a lot of creative additions to the real history, The Tudors finally comes out thoroughly conventional, in design and execution. The main problem with The Tudors is the fact that we never really get any context for the actions whizzing by on the screen. Who, exactly, is Henry VIII here? We hear him embrace "humanism" (but we never hear a discussion of what that concept is, or what it means to him); we hear him embrace the "Church" (but we never get a sense of what that "Church" means to England, in any historical context); we hear him gradually denounce the "Church" (but we never get an adequate sense of what opposing tenet now enthralls him); and most importantly, we see him pursue, with increasing disregard for logic and political expediency, Anne Boleyn (but we never understand what it is about Anne that makes Henry so crazy for her).
Why does Henry find Anne Boleyn so indispensable to his daily life? Watching The Tudors, we may just conclude it was sex alone that drove the monarch mad with unquenched lust. Certainly Natalie Dormer, the elfish, minx-eyed brunette with the heaving decolletage who plays Anne, is intriguingly erotic enough to confirm that notion with most viewers. But was that really all that Henry found arresting about her? That he couldn't have her sexually until he was divorced? The Tudors, in typically unfocused fashion, can't make up its mind as to whether or not Anne really loves Henry at this point in their relationship (the series ends before their eventual marriage), or whether she's simply a stooge for her father Thomas Boleyn (Nick Dunning), who had earlier pimped out his older daughter to the king, in exchange for political and monetary gain. If the series won't take a stand on what guides Anne's actions, and if the character of Henry isn't even scratched in terms of motivation, other than a Cliff Notes litany of historical guideposts (through no fault of the mesmerizing Jonathan Rhys Meyers, whose performance is the best thing in the series), we're left with a very pretty Avon Books historical romance novel, brought to life - and nothing more.
Not even the usually accomplished Sam Neill can pull out a save with his calculating Cardinal Wolsey impersonation, which is central to the main story arc in this first season (the series has already been renewed for a second go-around). Is Wolsey evil? Is he kind? Does he truly love and support the king, or is he an opportunist, manipulating the king to make himself Pope? The Tudors won't tell you. It wants to have it all ways with the character, and thus, leaves us hanging (the character's final scene, where he commits suicide - which is historical bunk, by the way - literally has Wolsey telling the viewer even he doesn't know who he is). The Sopranos may have benefitted from a post-modern ambivalence in character motivation and plotting (although that series' finale would suggest that tactic was taken a step too far), but The Tudors' studied vagueness ultimately doesn't impart artistic depth, but rather a flashy, shallow "existential gilt" applied to a thoroughly conventional - but nonetheless enjoyable - soap opera.
Here are the 10, one-hour episodes of the four-disc box set The Tudors: The Complete First Season, as described on their slimcases:
Episode 7 (incorrectly labeled as appearing on Disc Two)
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.