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Here Today. Beheaded Tomorrow.

By Sarah Carlson | TV | April 9, 2009 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | April 9, 2009 |

When Michelle Obama dared to touch Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace last week, the breach of protocol sent media around the world into a tizzy. Global recession? Boring. Monarchs? Always entertaining. At least, they’re always entertaining to the chunk of public fixated on celebrity, especially the kind one’s born with, and the media knew there was a ready-made market for the story that wasn’t really a story. Even if, as “The Daily Show’s” John Oliver pointed out, the Queen as a figurehead doesn’t exactly scream democracy for Great Britain, what are they supposed to do? Not pass the crown when she dies? Not have a king or queen? That position of power and nobility is so ingrained in their society and ours that, even though Elizabeth isn’t commanding armadas or anything, we can’t imagine life without her or any of the royals. Their lives are the never-ending car wreck we stare at, a bejeweled and adulterous one with cool hats and weird traditions. Pedestals are created so society can knock its powerful members off of them, people. We have to look, and we delight in judging, and all the while we’re wondering what it would be like to be a part of it all.

It’s that natural fascination that Showtime’s “The Tudors” taps into, and they’re doing one better than the tabloids by going back several centuries to examine one of history’s most powerful and insane monarchs: King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Everyone knows who he is, even if they can’t say how many wives he had (six) or name them (Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr). I can do that without looking it up, but there’s no way for me to prove that on here, so I’ll just move on. Part PBS documentary, part soap opera and part late-night Cinemax romp, “The Tudors” relishes in the corruption and sexual escapades its characters partake in, not yet lowering itself to the level of smut, but not shying away from showing as many naked maids in waiting as possible. As its timeline goes, the show has had serious ground to cover in its first two seasons, and a rocky start that tried to cram too many chapters into one class period likely turned away many viewers. If you don’t know your history, you will be taught it, and the density of the politics of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England doesn’t provide for light view in between the oh-wow-that-looks-so-real sex scenes. Still, a strong second season helped propel the series into something more than voyeurism, thanks to the moving performances of Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas Moore. “The Tudors” is still a melodrama — few period pieces aren’t — but the beautiful work of the second season gives me hope for the third.

“The Tudors” doesn’t just deal with Henry’s bipolar tendencies to love a person one minute and behead them the next, but also with how he kicked off the Reformation so he could divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry his second, Anne Boleyn. That took up the first season, with Season Two revolving around the destruction of Anne, and thankfully the creators are kind to her and show her as the victim she was. Season Three began Sunday with Henry’s marriage to wife No. 3, Jane Seymour, and the uprising of his subjects none too thrilled with Henry’s split from Rome. Decades have already been covered leading up to this point, and with each episode Henry gains a little more ground — power over his subjects, over other leaders, over the church. Rhys Meyers, while not looking the part, is brilliant as Henry VIII, delving deeper into his psyche than past presentations of the monarch have. He’s attractive, cunning and truly terrifying. Perhaps it helps that Rhys Meyers doesn’t look like Henry — he’s not playing dress up, or fleshing out a caricature. The creators have taken him in a fresh direction, hiring Rhys Meyers for skills, not a red beard and belly. Now that our beloved Boleyn and Moore are no longer with us, Meyers is carrying the show with the help of James Frain as Thomas Cromwell. Again, it is these performances that raise the show to a higher level. Plus, the costumes are pretty.

What more is there to say about the plot? It already happened. If you were surprised when Anne Boleyn died, you’re an idiot. You may be surprised at the individual fates of the remaining four wives, so I won’t give away the inevitable, but we still have more divorces and beheadings ahead of us. Joss Stone stars as wife No. 4, Anne of Cleves, a role one can’t have too much pride to audition for considering Henry was rumored to have described her as looking like a horse. The fact that we know what is coming is what makes the show even more peculiar fodder: We’ve been told when and where the car crash will be and we’re showing up early for prime seats. There are lessons to be learned, though, from our history, and royal and noble from the reign of the Tudors are certainly fascinating. But it’s the way those lessons are packaged that truly sells, and for that, “The Tudors” knows exactly what it’s doing.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.