I'm not sure if I should recuse myself from reviewing The Tudors Season Two. I spent much of my early school life in an Episcopalian parochial environment, and many decades later was Music Minister (yes, that's what they called me, for better or worse) at a large Episcopalian church for many years. So I am somewhat steeped in the patently strange history that some Anglicans and/or Episcopalians insist is about deep philosophical issues when The Tudors, among virtually every other relatively fictionalized or historically accurate film and television portrayal of Henry VIII makes abundantly clear, all boiled down to one simple thing: Henry wanted a male heir and was desperate enough to do just about anything to make that happen. Film and television are rife with some truly excellent depictions of this tumultuous era in British history, all of which make for fascinating companion viewing to this series, everything from A Man for All Seasons to Anne of the Thousand Days (especially interesting considering The Tudors' second season emphasis on the Boleyn family) to The Private Life of Henry VIII to, of course, the magnificent BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. If The Tudors attempts to recast events in a sexier postmodernist interpretation with a soap operatic edge, it at least does so in an opulent production that may leave the real history on the cutting room floor but which provides its principal cast with scenery chewing opportunities galore.
The first season of The Tudors came in for some pretty nasty critical rebukes for its many truth-stretching, not to mention outright fabricated, elements. Creator/writer Michael Hirst seems to have stepped back slightly from the edge in this second season, but anyone looking for outright historical accuracy is going to want to look elsewhere. The Tudors makes no pretenses about what it's aiming for: this is "pretend" history seen through an extremely glossy veneer, with luscious people lusting after each other in gorgeous (and pristine) environments that do little to evoke what life must have really been like in those days. What The Tudors does do admirably is point up the absolutely labyrinthine political climate surrounding Henry VIII's futile attempts to produce a son, which led to the split from the Catholic church when those pesky Popes wouldn't grant the King an annulment from his "barren" (meaning son-less) first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
This second season is devoted pretty much entirely to the wooing and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn (which begs the question--is The Tudors looking for a six season run, one year for each wife?). Natalie Dormer is exceptional in the role, reminding me more than a little at times of Genevieve Bujold's alternately haughty and vulnerable Anne in the excellent Anne of the Thousand Days. Dormer shows Anne's outright ambition early in the season, as she politely claws her way into the position of Queen. If The Tudors makes a mockery of the Boleyn family's jockeying for position, it paints a riveting picture of a young girl who sees an incredible opportunity and grabs for it with all the gusto she's got. In an apt display of "be careful what you wish for," the remaining episodes show Dormer portraying an Anne who slowly comes to realize that her inability to produce a male heir is going to consign her to a fate much worse than first wife Catherine, who got off relatively easily by simply being more or less imprisoned.
If Jonathan Rhys Meyers is too young and frankly too slim to be a totally believable Henry at this stage of the King's life, he does a mostly admirable job of conveying Henry's desperation which is mixed with a pungent dose of backstabbing, plotting and Machiavellian machinations that are truly astounding at times. Henry doesn't blink twice when early in the season most of the Bishops standing in his way are poisoned, almost all of them dying, finally consenting to having the cook who administered the poison (who was obviously a pawn for higher-ups) boiled alive in order to maintain some sense of propriety. And that's one of the less disturbing behaviors Henry exhibits as he finds his world dominated by his inability to provide a Y chromosome (which of course is always blamed on wife X--no genetic pun intended--of the moment).
The supporting cast in this season of The Tudors is remarkably facile, headed by the agonizingly poignant work of Maria Doyle Kennedy as Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Kennedy has incredibly doleful eyes which nonetheless convey an incredibly steely, dare I say regal, manner which makes her Catherine both tragic and noble in equal measure. Jeremy Northam's Sir Thomas More was my second favorite character after Catherine, with Northam doing exceptional work showing More's conflicted reactions to Henry's increasingly erratic rationalizations for why the Church of England was necessary. More of course becomes a tragic figure in his own right during this season, and Northam gets to shine in some of the later episodes when the conflict with Henry comes to its climax. James Frain's Thomas Cromwell is a picture of obsequious power-grabbing, frightening and disgusting in equal measure. Guest star Peter O'Toole also has some deliciously vicious moments as Pope Paul III. I laughed out loud during O'Toole's hilarious scene discussing the disinterment of his predecessor, a scene which O'Toole tosses off with an understated matter-of-factness that makes the Pope's scheming character completely apparent.
The Tudors is an exceptionally rich looking production, with gorgeous sets and costumes, and some lovely period music underscoring. Showtime has obviously budgeted the series well above the norm for a typical cable series, and it shows. The physical production is in fact one of the better reasons to watch The Tudors, which can, from a historical perspective at least, be less than engaging at times. This is a sort of pre-Elizabethan tawdry Dynasty at times, something which The Tudors makes no bones about. This may be history-lite, but it's probably tarted up for an understandable, if disappointing, reason--modern audiences may not want to watch it otherwise. Viewers can get their prurient fixes from The Tudors, but hopefully the more discerning among them might turn to some other sources for the real story, which is as fascinating, if not more so, than this highly fictionalized version.