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March 29, 2007 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | March 29, 2007 |

Well this is a first for me, and I’m not quite sure how to approach this review. See, I watched the first episode of Showtime’s “The Tudors” (Sunday nights at 10 p.m., premiering April 1st) and was utterly and completely bored by it. I had to struggle to not turn it off before the hour was up, and though I won that battle, I decided not to watch the second episode as I had previously planned (particularly after seeing the “This Season” clips at the end of the first episode). Usually, this wouldn’t be a problem — I’d sit down and write a nasty review eviscerating the elements of the show that I hated, all the while desperately trying to persuade you to avert your precious eyes. But the unique problem I’m faced with here is that I think many of you may like “The Tudors” just fine. And I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, disrespecting your taste (e.g., it’s not like I’m saying “well ‘Two and a Half Men’ is a pile of penguin turds, but I think you’re all dumb enough to quite enjoy the taste of penguin turds”). So take the following criticisms with a big old grain of salt, because I just can’t wrap my head around the question of whether this is a show that’s worth your time and viewing investment — I just don’t think it’s worth my time and viewing investment.

Set in the early 16th Century (circa the 1520s or 1530s, I believe), “The Tudors” focuses on the early reign of a young Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Myers), second of the five Tudors who ruled England. At the start of the show, Henry is still married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella), and he hasn’t even meet his the second of his six wives, Anne Boleyn. This eventual love triangle will be one of the main focuses of the “first season” of the show for two reasons (I put “first season” in quotes because Showtime is still billing the show as a 10 episode miniseries, yet the creator is already working on a second season and, unless the ratings tank, I expect there will be more of “The Tudors”). First, it gives the show an obvious “romantic” center. But also, from a historical aspect, the drama of this triangle plays largely into the religious upheaval of the time, ultimately leading to Henry’s excommunication and his pulling the Church of England away from Rome’s Catholic command.* In addition to these eventual romantic and religious entanglements, Henry has quite a few other things keeping him busy: he’s got many other cute, young things to bed on the side (he has two or three different dalliances in the premiere episode alone); he has some problems with France which may be leading to war; the Duke of Buckingham wants to take the throne out of the hands of the Tudors and is raising an army for that purpose; and one of Henry’s principal advisors, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Sam Neill), has some Machiavellian agendas of his own.

With all this going on, the show shouldn’t be boring, right? Particularly when the premiere episode did a pretty good job in terms of putting all of this into play without stuffing too much down your throat. And yet, bored I was — nothing in the show gripped me. Now, this has happened to me before: on my first viewing of the premiere episode of “Rome,” I thought it was a bit dull, and at the risk of losing all credibility, when I first watched the premiere of “The Wire,” I gave serious thought to not coming back. But, in both instances, I stuck around because I had this gut feeling that they were just worth the investment with. My issue with both first episodes was more about slow pacing than anything else, and there was just this hunch that the slow pacing was intentional and would eventually be paid off (and both fulfilled this hunch, brilliantly). But with “The Tudors,” it’s not a matter of slow pacing. As I said, from a purely objective standpoint, I think the pacing is about right. But subjectively, it just doesn’t do anything for me, and I don’t have the same feeling that there’s a brilliant reward waiting for me at the end of it all.

Now a lot has been discussed about the show’s portrayal of Henry VIII not as a fat slob but as a young beefcake. By all accounts, however, this is a reasonable portrayal of the young King, and I have no problem with that aspect of the show. But I do have a problem with Myers, the portrayer of said beefcake. The show obviously revolves around his Henry VIII and it will, in large part, live or die by Myers’ performance. Myers isn’t exactly bad, per se, but he really isn’t all that great either. There were times when I found Myers entirely un-emotive — personally, I find his “smoldering and sexy” gaze to just be “dead eyes.” And at other times, I felt like he was emoting out the wazoo. For example, there’s a scene about 30-40 minutes in where Henry gives us a glimpse of his desperate desire for a son and male heir (at this point, he just has one daughter via Catherine). And Myers just didn’t make the sale. Again, his performance wasn’t bad - in a truly terrible actor’s hands, this scene would have been laugh-out-loud melodrama — it just felt a little too forced, a little too desperate. My only familiarity with Myers comes from Bend It Like Beckham (a movie I probably like far more than I should, and not just because of Kiera Knightly), and my take on him there was that he was passable, but no great shakes. And that’s how I feel here, as well — Myers is passable, but no great shakes. The trouble is, Henry VIII kind of requires some great shakes.

Aside from Myers, the acting mostly holds up well enough, although it also mostly suffers from the same problem — none of it’s terrible, but none of it is amazing. At its worst, it was a touch distracting, though not laughable like the performance in “October Road” or something that ilk. The only exception here is Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey. I don’t know what it is about Neill, but he has just never worked for me, and he doesn’t work here either. I’m sure others will say he’s brilliant in this role, so this may be one of the aspects of this review where it’s a “maybe it’s just me thing.” But Neill just irked me in every scene he was in — like Myers, it feels like he’s just trying too hard to show how “complicated” and “multi-layered” Wolsey is/was.

And that’s actually a problem with the show in general — it all feels like it’s trying too hard, it all feels too forced. From almost the very beginning, I felt like the show had an obvious desire to be hip and sexy, and that it was wearing it all on its sleeve. For example, I know that Henry was a hornball, and that this necessitates the character hiding his share of some pickles. And I have absolutely nothing against a show finding an excuse to show off some nice breasts, but I think there’s a way to do it well (“Rome”) and a way, well, not so much. And here, it was not so much, feeling like they were broadcasting: “Look at us! This is a new type of British history folks. It’s sexy. And there are titties!” And although “The Tudors” is trying to be this kind of hip and sexy and “modern” story, at the end of it all, it really just felt like every other modern retelling of British royal history. Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the show comes from Michael Hirst, who also wrote Elizabeth (the big-screen Cate Blanchett version). While Hirst seems to feel he’s stretching and hitting new heights with this show, the only thing really different about it is that Henry VIII is a part of the British reign we haven’t seen done to death on the big or small screen yet.

Truthfully, I should be eating this shit up. Good historical dramas have really become one of my current favorite TV types, both because they’re something different from the more standard fare, and particularly because of how fantastic “Rome” and “Deadwood” were ( “Battlestar Galactica,” too — once you get past the sci-fi aspect of it, the show really shares quite a bit in common with “Rome” and “Deadwood” in terms of tone, content, style and approach). But I actually blame “Rome” and “Deadwood” (and “BSG”) for some of my problems with “The Tudors.” While those shows have given me a newfound love for the “historical” genre, they’ve also become the gold standards, so I can’t help but compare a similar show like “The Tudors.” And it can’t stand up to a comparison. Now it’s not necessarily fair for me to compare the shows, and that probably plays a part in my reservation about flat-out denouncing the show. But “The Tudors” just isn’t dirty enough for me, at the end of the day, in the way “Rome” and “Deadwood” were (…”were”…so sad). I don’t mean “sex and violence” dirty. Rather, I mean it’s not gritty. Everything feels a little too pretty and polished, even with all the sex and conspiring. And I realize that this is an unavoidable consequence — 16th Century England simply wasn’t as raw as ancient Rome or the 19th Century mid-West. But “Rome” and “Deadwood” have made me thirsty for historical dramas with teeth, and that’s not “The Tudors.” So on Sundays, after watching “The Sopranos,” I think I’ll stick with HBO for some “Entourage,” with my only regret being that I’ll miss the eventual beheading of “The Tudors.” Cause I do love me some head-lopping.

*Please note that I was not a history major, nor have I ever been particularly good at history, so this is not only a gross over-simplification, but I may have some of this historical stuff wrong. Point being, don’t cite to the TV Whore in your history papers and then be surprised when it doesn’t exactly help your credibility.


Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He’s too happy about the fact that Sanjaya is hilariously still on “American Idol” to really care about anything else right now.

I'm Henry the Bored, I Am I Am

"The Tudors" / The TV Whore
Mar. 29, 2007

TV | March 29, 2007 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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