May 6, 2007

TV Review: The Tudors

Posted in Television at 9:18 pm by Calico Jack

As an ardent fan of HBO’s Rome, I was excited to hear last winter that Showtime would be producing The Tudors, a miniseries about the early reign of Henry VIII. Rome was an excellent show because it depicted everything from the machinations of the Imperial Senate to the struggles that common soldiers faced after returning home from years-long sorties into foreign lands. Focusing on the political and military aspects of the crumbing Roman Republic gave it an epic scope, but Rome also showed the absolute decadence and corruption that pervaded the crumbling Roman Republic at the time Julius Caesar rose to power and proclaimed himself dictator. Its sweeping scale set the standard for what television could do, and Rome‘s meticulous attention to period detail was refreshing. Now I looked forward to enjoying a similarly-scoped story, this time set in Renaissance England. What’s not to like?

I wasn’t able to see The Tudors until Best Buy gave away a promo Showtime disc containing the first two episodes (along with Weeds and Dexter, both of which were merely okay), and I “acquired” episodes 3 & 4 through a little judicious online hunting. After watching all four hours (with six more remaining in the first season), I can safely say that Rome is in no danger of losing its perch as best period TV show of all time. The Tudors forgoes Rome’s depth and careful plotting for a slightly flashier, up-tempo style that reminds one of a marshmallow Peep: pretty on the outside, but quite a bit of fluff within.

Nonetheless, it has been an entertaining four episodes so far, and once my expectations were adjusted a bit I found that I enjoyed the show as more than merely a Rome-lite. Jonathan Rhys Meyers looks nothing like the real-life Henry VIII, which should alert the unwary that historical accuracy was a distant third or fourth place in the producers’ list of objectives. But Davies captures Henry’s philandering spirit and boyish charm quite well, although one would think that as he would display a greater gravitas as king — after all, he alone decides whether England should go to war with France, no matter what his advisors (each with his own personal agenda) say. Yet his interests and expertise lie more in the bedroom than the throne room, causing great consternation amongst his long-suffering wife Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Natalie Dormer is quite striking as the seductive Anne Boleyn, sent by her father to win over Henry’s heart and thereby influence his rash political tendencies. Most of the central figures in Henry VIII’s court are also present, from Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam) to corrupt cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill). That latter bit of casting surprised me somewhat; for the first several episodes I was half-expecting him to say something like “Do you know what this is? This is a dinosaur egg. The dinosaurs are breeding.”

Although its strengths are many — special notice must be given to set design and costuming, both of which are visually stunning — The Tudors stumbles in two different areas. As mentioned, historical accuracy is not exactly the strength of the show. For many, having Mary Tudor and Margaret Tudor composited into one role will not matter in the slightest; but those who remember their English history might be rather irked at the liberties taken. The combination of Mary and Margaret is probably its most egregious error, which is a rather nitpicky thing to say, I suppose. Everything else is just window dressing.

The other flaw is its scope; or rather, the lack thereof. Unlike Rome, which spent much of its time among the shopkeepers and ex-soldiers of the Republic, there are almost no depictions of the the common man’s life in early sixteenth-century England. Focusing on Henry’s court with few outside connections leaves The Tudors feeling a bit less epic than it should have been. The lives of the wealthy and privileged had very little in common with ordinary citizens, but there is little sense of perspective in the marbled floors and golden goblets of Whitehall Palace.

One unfair criticism leveled against The Tudors is that since the audience knows how the story ends, why should they bother watching to find out what happens in the middle? But such a charge could be made against Rome itself, which turned this potential drawback into one of its strengths. Knowing the ending to these retellings only adds urgency to the proceedings, as the audience perhaps has a better grasp on the implications of certain characters’ actions than the characters themselves do. The Tudors is not quite as adept as Rome was in displaying that urgency, but I’ve watched less than half of the first season; and with a second season already ordered, the exploits of King Henry will be continuing for quite a while.


  1. AliceInWonder said,

    While I am in whole-hearted agreement with your criticisms of the disregard for accuracy in the Tudors, you might be a bit more careful with accuracy when citing actors’ names–it is Jonathon Rhys Meyers, not Davies! (Rome definitely triumphs over the Tudors in my opinion, but it definitely took historical liberties of its own as well!)

  2. Calico Jack said,

    Oops, you’re right. I shouldn’t confuse Gimli the Dwarf with Henry VII…

  3. anon said,

    small details!? yeah, like how fat, bearded Henry VIII suddenly became a sex god!

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