Like HBO’s Rome, Showtime’s The Tudors looks to spice up some well-known history with large doses of sex and melodrama. While the end result will probably never be used in any actual history courses out there, The Tudors is still a highly effective and engrossing period piece – further cementing Showtime’s recent emergence as a true creative force in the world of quality television.
Eschewing the typical image that most of us have of England’s infamous Henry VIII, The Tudors instead takes the less-usual route of focusing on the man’s earlier years – when, according to this series, he looked a lot like Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Obviously, this is not the fat, bearded, arrogant Henry we are accustomed to. Well, OK, he’s still pretty arrogant, but he’s also a strapping, athletic young specimen with a true lust for life and power.
Still, as great as his early reign as King is proving to be, he has a number of pressing concerns. For one, he is already concerned with the legacy he will leave, and if looking for a way to make himself a legend is perhaps a bit too eager to either start a war, or bring all of Europe together in peace…or both (whichever one suits his purposes more at the moment). Meanwhile, his marriage to his first wife (and brother’s widow) Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy, in a commanding performance), while giving him a daughter, has failed to produce any male heirs – a fact the young king finds particularly bothersome.
This situation is complicated – and I mean that in the most severe way possible – when Henry takes a liking to Katherine’s young, sassy lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn (the amazingly beautiful Natalie Dormer). The two begin a flirtatious relationship that soon grows into something far more serious, with Anne promising that she could give him the son he so desperately wants…if only they could be married and make it official. That sounds all well and good, except for that whole pesky marriage to Katherine thing. And, as anyone familiar enough with Henry’s history is already aware, the idea if simply divorcing the Queen was not exactly the easiest one back then. And so the season’s last half focuses on Henry’s attempt to convince the Catholic Church that his marriage to Katherine was never official, therefore allowing him to walk away from it and be with Anne – a feat he attempts to accomplish with the aid of the faithful (and crooked) Cardinal Wolsey (a very good Sam Neill), who is every bit Henry’s match in sheer ambition and hunger for power.
Obviously, most of the audience will know how this story ends, but that doesn’t mean the series doesn’t mine great drama out of the time spent getting there. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the show also takes it sweet time moving things along – by the end of the first season, Henry and Katherine are still married, he and Anne have still not consummated their relationship, and we still are not into the Reformation period. How then does the show fill the rest of its time? Well, it is an ensemble show, after all, and so we get the requisite side-stories concerning Henry’s friends and families. Some of these are interesting – like the forbidden love affair between Henry’s sister Margaret (Gabrielle Anwar) and his good friend Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill) – while some of them are, well, not so much. A subplot regarding the secret homosexuality of William Compton (Kristen Holden-Reid), another of Henry’s close friends, feels tacked on – as if the producers felt like they needed to make sure people understood that homosexuality was an issue back then, too.
Still, overall, this is a show where the supporting characters (and actors) add to the final product, rather than distract from the main bits. The numerous story threads paint a fascinating picture of the corruption and decadence so rampant during that time period, and it gives a number of fine actors their chance to shine. In particular, Nick Dunning is excellent as Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas, who essentially pimps his own daughters out to the King in order to pull off a play for influence. And Jeremy Northam nearly steals the show as Sir Thomas More, the renowned humanist Henry eventually places in the Lord Chancellor position. Although playing much of the season’s early episodes as sort of the more pious, decent counterpoint to the corrupt Wolsey, Northam’s More eventually reveals his own little…quirks, making the character far more intriguing than has been the case in some other productions and works based on the times.
Of course, as good as the rest of the cast is, the show mostly belongs to Rhys Meyers, and if there’s any justice it will end up being a star-making performance. Just by the approach the show takes, the character of Henry is infinitely more compelling than is often the case. It’s not often we get to see a Henry just as apt to engage in numerous athletic competitions as he is sexual liaisons (don’t get me wrong, he indulges in both…frequently). With his steely gaze, and devilish glint in his eye, Rhys Meyers more than makes up for his questionable physical resemblance to Henry. As his plan to leave Katherine and take Anne for his own continues to allude him, Henry grows more and more agitated and begins to unravel, and the intensity Rhys Meyers brings to these moments is enough to make us believe that this is the man who will grow into the legend we know of today.
Sure, there are moments when the show’s desire to be titillating gets in the way of things (the final episode begins with a bizarre and unnecessary masturbation scene, while the last scene of the same episode – a strange “coitus interruptus” moment, seems like a strange way to end an entire season). Overall, though, this is a very well-done and fascinating look at the early reign of Henry VIII, even if it probably will appeal more to fans of drama than History majors.
Like most well-done period pieces, The Tudors is full of sumptuous visuals – bright, beautiful costumes and amazing production design – and so it’s a relief that the set’s 1.78:1 widescreen transfers look so well. I noticed a few moments where the image got a little soft looking, but nothing out of the ordinary for a cable television series. Overall, the picture looks great.
The set’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is certainly serviceable enough – the sound is clear, and no one element ever covers up another. But it’s also somewhat unimpressive, with the series just never really seeming to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by surround sound. A Dolby 2.0 audio track is also included.
It’s a good thing the show is enjoyable enough on its own merits, because the DVD set sure comes up short in the extras department. Although you would expect such a large and ambitious project to merit a wealth of “making-of” material, we instead only get two brief featurettes on Production Design (4 minutes) and Costume Design (5 minutes) – both of which are interesting enough, but far too short to be of any real value.
Next up is the 22 minute Tudors Historical Sites, which features professional London tour guide Kevin Conroy showing off some of the different areas in London that played a key role in Henry’s life (including the Tower of London and Cardinal Wolsey’s Hampton Court Palace). This is a pretty decent featurette, as Conroy has some actual interesting information to show, but the fact that none of these sites are actually used in the filming of the series (which is actually filmed in Ireland) makes its inclusion here somewhat odd. I mean, I’d understand it if there were other extras detailing the actual history of Henry VIII, but why only this?
Superfluous Photo Gallery and Cast Biographies sections are also included, which are really only notable for a glaring mistake in Sam Neill’s biography, which claims the actor appeared in both Jurassic Park sequels. Hey, someone might want to inform Mr. Neill he was in The Lost World, I bet he’ll be as surprised as the rest of us.
In a rather annoying bit of self-promotion, Showtime has also included one episode each of a few of its other shows: This American Life, Californication, and Penn & Teller: Bullshit. I suppose I understand the thinking here, but that doesn’t make it any less irksome. Why not use that DVD space for more extra features actually concerning, oh, I don’t know…The Tudors? If I gave a damn about Californication, I’d buy the Californication DVD (which I can only assume will come with free episodes of Weeds and Masters of Horror).
Finally, there are some trailers for some other Paramount TV DVD sets: Ghost Whisperer, Criminal Minds, Twin Peaks, Jericho and CSI.
The Series: 9.0
The Video: 8.5
The Audio: 8.0
The Extras: 6.0
The 411: Despite it's disappointing selection of special features, the DVD set of the first season of Showtime's The Tudors is definitely worth a look. Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers what should be a star-making performance as the young Henry VIII, in a sexy and compelling series that shines some much-needed light on an era in the King's life not often touched upon.