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Empire Strikes Out

Historical fiction is by its very nature fraught with tension. To the casual or hopelessly uninformed viewer or reader, every event, character depiction, tryst, and scandal is subject to questions of accuracy--or, worse, taken as fact. Somewhere between what actually happened and what makes for good entertainment, there is a vast schism of unknowable detail lost to time and replaced by speculation. At its best, historical fiction allows us a glimpse of the lives and personalities of those who once shaped the world and what meaning those lives have for us today. How countries, political unions, and wars have shaped our current landscape can give us all insight into the myriad threads of thought that find us at our present. The film The Last Emperor offered a peek into a dying empire that marked a tidal shift in Asia; Cate Blanchett's transformative performance in Elizabeth provided a gripping explanation for the Virgin Queen's rise to power; and "Roots" gave a new generation of Americans a prism through which to view one of the darkest hours in our own country's brief history. These films are not simply backstage passes to other eras, but explorations of psyche and motivation.

At its worst, historical fiction is a tawdry attempt at revisionism, propaganda, or mere salaciousness. Of course, this is the most popular form of historical fiction: Think Pearl Harbor, Titanic, or even The Passion of the Christ. Hanging the flimsy veil of fairytale, fantasy, or personal belief on the altar of real events does not inspire veracity, just verisimilitude. Yet, lately, dramatizing epic moments in time has become de rigueur. The latest effort is a crude attempt to follow in the shallow wake of HBO's successful series "Rome." With "The Tudors," Showtime is channeling the brash, youthful beginning to King Henry VIII's startling reign.

"The Tudors" falls neatly into the salacious category of historical fiction. Lacking at least the camp of a telenovela or the thoughtfulness of a Merchant Ivory project, "The Tudors" is left mired in its own enormous pretentiousness. Rich in nudity, wealth, and political machinations, "The Tudors" is more like the "Dallas" of the ancient British aristocracy. In the first two episodes, two chambermaids and two Ladies of the Court are bedded in lurid detail whilst various deceptions and plots are quickly formed in hushed tones--but very quickly!--before we are whisked back to the bacchanalia, or the party to commemorate a new treaty, or the celebration of the king's new, illegitimate son. "The Tudors" so far seems to be lacking only in violence, which is actually too bad, because a good battle might remind us all how brutal and palpable such unrestrained power can be--not to mention the hordes of "regular" people under the thumb of such power.

But then, why bother with the great unwashed when you've got Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the role of Henry? The lean, muscled, pale-blue-eyed "it" boy of the moment languishes shirtless throughout most scenes lustily eating juicy pomegranates, getting shaved by his dressers, bedding everyone but his wife, and even wrestling with the king of France. No doubt his many lovelorn fans will appreciate every shirtless, simmering shot. Nevertheless, the sex is decidedly laughable at times. At one point, before mauling a chambermaid, the king asks, "Do you consent?" as though it's 1994 at Antioch College. Another scene finds the young king receiving his first blow job from Mary Boleyn (Anne's sister) after indelicately asking her what she had learned during her time in France. It is simply Jonathan Rhys Meyers porn. Unfortunately, the writing is so dreadful, the normally evocative Meyers is reduced to stomach-churning frat-boy antics and the sulky tantrums of the boy king. Considering Henry was supposedly a Renaissance man of true order--a musician, an artist, a theologian--this insipid portrayal seems grossly gratuitous.

There is one awkward reference to Machiavelli, which Henry brings up almost as an afterthought, as though it were required reading at his Round Table book club. "Have you ever heard of The Prince?" he asks adviser Thomas More. (More is played by the normally brilliant Jeremy Northam in such a banal, listless way that he comes off as nothing but a fuddy-duddy naïf who just doesn't understand why we all can't get along.) The young king fancies himself a humanist but is drawn to Machiavellian expediency. And this is about as introspective as the young king gets in "The Tudors"; imagining him as a theologian is all but impossible. Never mind the total absence of music or art as hobbies. (There is a moment when Henry compliments a singer; does that count?)

It is a little fun to see an out-of-control leader who isn't accountable to his people. Perhaps Americans are interested in the show because they can say, Hey, I didn't vote for him! It certainly can't be for the history; the show doesn't even explain Henry's unique ascension to the throne. The fact is, young, spoiled Henry just isn't as interesting as old, crazy Henry. Indeed the beguiling treachery of Anne Boleyn seems a far more interesting premise for a show than the dupe who falls for her. But I guess that after the success of 300 and "Rome," Showtime has to keep up with the empire next door. The good news is: You don't have to.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled the names of Anne Boleyn and Thomas More. We regret the error.

By Sacha Zimmerman