16th Century Sex and Power Thrill Audiences

Forget the petticoats, silk skirts, embroidered jackets and ornate jewels, the royals of the 16th century seemed to take greater joy in scampering out of their heavy costumes than parading around in them.

At least that's what the "The Tudors," Showtime's sexy and lavish historical drama, leads you to believe about the life and times of King Henry VIII, the notorious English monarch who broke from the Roman Catholic Church and worked his way through six wives in the pursuit of a male heir.

A chiseled Jonathan Rhys Meyers, playing a young King Henry VIII, spends as much time striding through court making royal decrees as he spends bare-chested, unbuttoning his pants to bed a retinue of sixteenth century beauties.

Filled with the explosive energy of a tightly coiled spring, Meyers' King Henry VIII chases after immortality and women, willing to sacrifice his wife, his daughter and even his religion.

"Tudors" creator Michael Hirst has written about the Henry that history has overlooked: the rambunctious, athletic, arrogant young man who accidentally came to power when he was only 18 years old, and who, as the series so aptly portrays, was more interested in the perks that came with monarchy than the business of ruling a kingdom.

"He had ultimate power. He could do anything he wanted. He was called the handsomest young king of Christiandom," Hirst told ABC News, "but at the same time he has a very human situation. He's married to an older woman who can't give him a son, and he falls in love with a younger woman. It's the dilemma of a king, but it's also the dilemma of a guy."

Confused? Titillated? Intrigued? If only history class could have been so much fun.

Showtime's Crown Jewel

With a splashy marketing campaign, an eye-catching cast and a plot scripted by the writer of the Oscar-nominated "Elizabeth," industry watchers say "The Tudors" has the potential to create the sort of iconic drama that could expand Showtime's viewer base and brand the channel as a must-have in the way its premium cable rival HBO has done with "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City" and "Entourage."

"This is a modernized version of a costume drama or period piece," Matt Blank, Showtime's chairman and CEO told ABC News. "You take an extremely appealing actor like Johnny and make him your Henry VIII, and you get a beautiful Anne Boleyn, you have the makings of a very sexy show."

So far, audiences are lapping the show up. More than 1 million viewers previewed the show online or through on-demand before it premiered, and more than 1.2 million viewers caught the official series premiere on April 1, the largest debut for the network in the last three years. Viewership has grown every week, according to Showtime.

The show is set to be the most successful in Showtime's 30-year history, according to Stuart Zakim, Showtime's vice president of corporate affairs. Showtime has already renewed the show for a second season with production set to start in June.

But the show also banks on the star power of Meyers, who checked into rehab today for alcohol addiction. A statement from his representative, Meredith O'Sullivan, said, "After a non-stop succession of filming Jonathan Rhys Meyers has entered an alcohol treatment program. He felt a break was needed to maintain his recovery."

BothO'Sullivan and a Showtime spokesperson tell ABC News that the actor's entrance into rehab will have no effect on the show's shooting schedule.

Eighty-Five Percent True

Mining history for drama is not a novel task, but the idea of televised period dramas with their expensive sets and long story lines often seems more the domain of PBS' "Masterpiece Theater" than a network known for groundbreaking shows like "Queer as Folk."

But "The Tudors" breaks the mold. The House of Tudor, which included Henry VII, Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I, was one of the shortest but most explosive dynasties to rule England and included some of British history's most famous monarchs.

That era of history is ripe with the sex, power and violence that are the fruit of today's dramas. It's "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing" meeting in the 16th century, creating a story line of which Hollywood could only dream.

Hirst told ABC News that Showtime had only one question when it called him about the script. "They asked, is any of it true?" Hirst said, "and I said, 'Oh about 85 percent of it."

Freed from the constraints of network television, which Hirst had originally scripted the drama for, Showtime told Hirst he could push the drama further if he wanted to.

And push he did.

"We have a very polite Jane Austen-ish view of history," Hirst told ABC News. "It's not true that people were very polite. They were hungry for power. Their life expectancy wasn't great. They wanted the good things in life. By showing it in a more extreme form, I believe we actually get closer to the truth."

"The Tudors" references the questions of that day -- humanism, the rise of Protestantism, Europe on the cusp of the Renaissance -- and Hirst promises that the politics of the period will play a greater role in future episodes.

But what intrigues and confounds the 21st century viewer is how the series portrays notions of 16th century sexuality, literally turning our modern-day notions of morality on its head.

The lusty young king need only cast a lingering glance at a young woman before she is in his bedroom, willingly shedding her robes. One of history's most notorious temptresses, Anne Boelyn lands in the king's bed at her father's bidding.

Anne, played by Natalie Dormer, is told by her father, "The king has tired of your sister. … I'm sure you can find a way to keep his interest more prolonged."

According to Northwestern University historian Ethan Shagan, these events ring true with the period.

"The sexuality of the male monarch is a very important symbol of the potency of the nation as a whole," Shagan said. "His sexuality represented the qualities of the nation, so it was important to have a son, and it was expected that the king would have several mistresses."

Shagan also says that 16th century women were more than just costumed dolls, waiting for marriage.

"There's always a sexual double standard," Shagan said. "A father would not be amused by his daughter's sexual escapades, but in a court culture where power involved physical access to the monarch, it was custom for fathers to trot out their daughters as a pathway to power."

Why We Just Can't Get Enough

The fascination with "The Tudors," according to Shagan, is that it lets people today talk about their own sexuality and how it might connect to power because sexual politics played such a crucial role in that period.

The period has proven to be a perennial favorite of the big screen, with such iconic films as "Anne of the Thousand Days" with Richard Burton to the more recent post-modern "Elizabeth," which recast the virgin queen as a sexual young woman.

Two more films on the Tudors are set to be released late this year: "The Other Boleyn Girl," with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, and "The Golden Age," also written by Hirst and once again starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth.

"All of these movies are about 21st century America," Shagan said. "Queen Elizabeth and her refusal to marry, Anne Boleyn and Henry the VIII -- these figures represent our outward political face and our inner desires in ways that are historically defensible. It's about real historical events that shaped the world, and it's about the sordid details that shape our lives."

It is the truths of that period, the volatile mix of sex and politics, which are considered so taboo today, that makes the drama of "The Tudors" compelling.

"Sex gets into bed with politics in that period. It's all connected," Hirst said. "Why did we break with the Catholic faith? Because Henry wanted to sleep with Anne Boleyn."