Though they're set more than a millennium apart, the specter of HBO's mammoth Rome series looms large over Showtime's The Tudors, both zesty attempts to reconfigure historical pageantry for contemporary cable subscribers. (In other words, lots of blood, cursing, and T&A;, all in the name of verisimilitude.) For all of its flaws, Rome introduced a ground-level realism that was new to the Roman historical epic, marked by the lusty machismo that had long been co-creator John Milius' stock-in-trade. By contrast, show-runner Michael Hirst, who scripted both Elizabeth and its recent sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, doesn't leave much of an imprint on the oft-told story of Henry VIII, at least beyond the too-hot-for-network-TV window-dressing. The events are all capably and sensibly unfurled, but it's history-by-numbers, absent a compelling point-of-view.
Paced smartly to give the series a few seasons' worth of intrigue, the first 10 episodes of The Tudors focus on Henry VIII's efforts to divorce Catherine Of Aragon, which profoundly affected foreign relationships and led to a decisive rift between England and the papacy. Stopping short of his marriage to Anne Boleyn and the foundation of the Church Of England, the first season follows the tumult caused by young Henry's desire for a legitimate male heir. With Catherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy) approaching menopause and only one of their six children—a daughter, Mary—having survived past infancy, Henry takes the drastic step of seeking an annulment from the Pope, under the logic that the marriage was never legitimate. Backed by his chief religious counsel, Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill), Henry argues that the papal dispensation that allowed him to marry his late brother Arthur's wife was ill-applied. And, of course, he has another woman, the fetching Anne (Natalie Dormer), waiting in the wings.
As played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the Henry VIII of The Tudors comes off like a petulant man-child, naïve and heavy-handed in foreign affairs and given to pursuing his lustful appetites under the guise of religious devotion. He's more willful than complex, given to acting out like a spoiled boy who's used to getting what he wants. The supporting players are more intriguing, particularly the tragically devoted and obstinate Catherine, and (the liberally fictionalized) Wolsey, who pays a price for doing the King's bidding. It all makes for reasonably persuasive soap opera, but after Rome, the bar has been raised a bit higher.
Key features: Blink-and-you'll-miss-'em featurettes on some of the tech elements join sample episodes of Showtime series like Californication and Penn & Teller BS.