Friday, March 30, 2007

T.V. on TV: The Tudors, This American Life and Planet Earth


If you don't already know what to expect from The Tudors, the credits will tip you off. Closeups of characters staring lustily into the camera are intercut with romantic pursuits through opulent hallways and a hefty dose of violence and sex. It's grand history reimagined as borderline-tawdry soap opera. The images recall HBO’s similar, superior Rome, which recently ended its run. But by the end of the Tudors pilot, you’re used to the fact that this isn’t the next great TV drama. It's just old-fashioned trashy fun -- a bodice-ripper that aspires to more but never quite gets there.

If The Tudors works at all, it's mainly due to Jonathan Rhys-Meyer’s central performance as Henry VIII. Henry’s desire to produce a male heir and his overactive libido arguably changed the world (or at least the institutions of the Catholic Church and marriage), and the show’s publicity materials definitely embrace that aspect of the Henry story. Rhys-Meyers plays Henry as something approaching a rock star. He strides in and out of scenes, seduces women almost by looking at them and wanders through life with a perpetual sneer. This isn’t the most original acting choice in history, but Rhys-Meyers has so much fun with Henry’s sheer debauchery and lust for sex and violence that you forgive him fairly quickly. When Henry decides to go to war on the slimmest of pretexts, it doesn’t feel like a commentary on modern events so much as the outgrowth of a spoiled rich king's impetuous desires (then again, maybe it does feel like a commentary on modern events).

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