"Hail to the King, baby."
– Bruce Campbell
(To catch up a bit, check out my review of season one)
(Warning: "Spoilers" follow, although it’s been 500 years since this all happened, so really you can suck it if you feel the need to complain)
Man, Showtime is kicking HBO’s ass all over the place in the original programming department. If only they hadn’t cancelled Dead Like Me four seasons before its time. For a perfect example of this, check out the vastly improved second season of Middle Ages drama The Tudors, pretty much the definition of taking everything wrong with the first season and dramatically fixing pretty much everything.
Well, I still don’t buy Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as King Henry VIII, but we’re kind of stuck with him now anyway.
Point being, the major criticisms of the first season were as follows:
1) The stories veered wildly from history, to the point where the inaccuracies became distracting to the story at times. Solution: Make the story more accurate to history while still taking enough liberties to make the dry political stuff into one hell of an entertaining 10 episode season.
2) Plot advancement and common sense was often thrown aside for the sake of overly steamy sex scenes, making the show into more of a soap opera than a historical drama. Solution: Less boobies, less graphic sex, unless it’s actually relevant to the plot. What a concept.
3) The pace of the first season was too slow and meandering, as it took them half a season to find their voice. Solution: Extraneous plot threads are kept to a minimum and the season is focused much more tightly and moves faster.
With those three fairly simple changes, the show suddenly goes from guilty pleasure to legitimately entertaining drama, and there’s still enough flesh to satisfy that sort of viewer, as well. Whereas the first season traced the rise of Anne Boleyn and her quest to bed the King of England and bear him a son, the second season shows her on the way down. Even 500 years ago, once a playa beds a chick it’s inevitable that he’ll move on soon enough. But what really impressed me in this season is the same thing that I thought bogged down the first season: The complex political games being played. In the first season, right from the start we were somehow expected to follow along with the complicated political machinations of approximately 10 people named Thomas without really knowing the characters or caring about them. It didn’t help that the show couldn’t decide if it was Entourage or Sex and the City for the first four or five episodes, resulting in an uneven tone as we struggled to remember just why the Duke of Norfolk was important from our high school history courses. By the start of this season, we know the players: King Henry is batshit insane, Anne Boleyn is a scheming piece of work who finds herself the played instead of the player now, Thomas Cromwell is awesome, and Sir Thomas More is pretty much doomed. The main driving force of the plot is Henry’s battle with the almighty Catholic church to allow him a divorce from dying Queen Catherine so he can marry Anne, but even by halfway through the season and a few years into his battle, he has grown bored with Anne and has his sights on the next conquest: Jane Seymour. The fact that Thomas More is willing to give his life to fight his former friend on this exercise in insanity makes the heart-wrenching fifth episode all the more powerful. By the ninth and tenth episodes, Henry has become like Jimmy Connor in Goodfellas, beyond all reason and just slaughtering his entire court in a fit of royal rage and jealousy. It’s hard to tell whether he’s putting on an act of thinking Anne’s "crimes" of incest and adultery are real, or if he’s so far gone into madness that he actually believes them. By the end, with Henry losing all grasp on reality and Anne going into the good night with dignity, the impossible has happened and she’s become the sympathetic character, which is a feat considering how easy it was to hate Anne by the end of the first season. The lack of awards consideration for Natalie Dormer is a head-scratcher, to be sure. In fact, the relationships are set up so effectively that I’m pretty sure they could jettison Rhys-Meyers after his story arc finishes (as it will reportedly do in the fourth season) and do another couple of seasons examining the fascinating relationship between his two heirs: Elizabeth and Mary Tudor (aka the future "Bloody Mary").
So good job, Showtime, you’ve taken junk fiction and turned it into one of the series I’m now looking forward to the most as it approaches its third season in April. This still isn’t a series to show to stodgy history students without fear of being nitpicked to death, but those kind of people are boring at parties anyway. (Rating: ****1/2)
Audio & Video
A stunning transfer to compliment the great work done by the production crew. It’s presented in widescreen format with no flaws or artifacts I could see aside from a couple of REALLY obvious layer changes at exactly halfway into each disc. Colors pop off the screen thanks to all the gaudy bling and costumes and really make you feel like you’re back in Olde England.
Sound-wise, the show is offered in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or plain Dolby 2.0, and I have to admit that I liked the stereo mix much better, as voices were cleaner and the music was more effective that way. The 5.1 mix sounded unnatural and I had to turn the center channel way up to bring the voices to the same level as the music and background noise, and I hate that.
The bonus features here are less about the show than they are about promoting Showtime. You get a silly five-minute piece about "descendents" of Henry VIII, which is little strange considering how diluted the bloodline must be after this amount of time. Heck, I can trace my roots back to Mary Queen of Scots, so I guess I’m part of that bloodline, too. All hail me. Anyway, there’s also a short piece with Natalie Dormer visiting the real Tower of London, where Anne Boleyn met her end via a charming executioner (Going "Boy, fetch my sword" and then lopping the victim’s head off while they look the other way is kind of a mean trick, if you think about it). The meat of the extras, however, is a brilliant bit of cross-promotion, as they outright give you full episodes of Californication (another surprise favorite of mine, with a second season debut on this set that’s so funny I wished to go out and buy the second season DVDs right after watching it. Sadly, they’re not out yet.) and This American Life. Plus extra episodes of Californication, Dexter and The United States of Tara via the interweb. Sure, they have nothing to do with the series you’re watching, but you might win some new viewers for the other shows and it costs you nothing. I’m surprised that Fox hasn’t taken a similar approach by putting episodes of American Dad on Family Guy sets. (Rating: ****, mostly for the awesome Californication premiere)
History made FUN! Henry VIII was such a wackjob that you can endlessly remake his life and never have it get boring (except, ironically, for Shakespeare, who apparently did just that) and now that the producers of The Tudors are moving forward with more confidence, the show just keeps better and more trashy at the same time. That’s a rare combination. Strongly recommended.
Tags: Showtime, SmarK Rants