'Tudors': History Stripped Down, Sexed Up

Some object to Showtime's sexy portrayal of Henry VIII's reign.


March 29, 2008 — -- In a time when courting is conducted through text messages and marriages are annulled at the drop of a Vegas poker chip, it's refreshing to watch Jonathan Rhys Meyers whisper sweet nothings during naughty dalliances and and enlist the pope's aid to get with the woman of his dreams.

The only problem is, the story "The Tudors" tells isn't what actually went down in 16th century England. It's history stripped down and sexed up in stiletto heels and glitter.

"It's cracking good drama, but as a historian, my hair's standing on end," said Alison Weir, author of "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and the upcoming "Lady Elizabeth." "I think it's misplaced, to be honest. It's sloppy filmmaking. Historically, forget it, this is not what happened."

The Showtime series about the early reign of Henry VIII returns for a second season of bodice ripping and head chopping Sunday night.

There's no doubt that Meyers, who plays the power-hungry king, and Natalie Dormer, who plays the porcelain-skinned Anne Boleyn, provide some pretty sweet eye candy. And with its regal costumes and opulent sets, "The Tudors" is one of the most visually arresting shows on TV.

But the show clearly favors flair over facts, according to some, to its detriment.

"For a program to be made with integrity, it has to take account of the facts," Weir said. "Not one female costume in there is correct for the period. It's so off the mark it's laughable. They're like fairy-tale costumes."

"There's some damn good acting," she continued. "But Jonathan Rhys Meyers should've been made to look like Henry VIII -- he needed a wig, they should've aged him, he should've put on a bit of weight. It's such a missed opportunity. They have all the resources -- why get some things right and not others?"

Oh, come on -- this is TV, not Reformation England 101. You're supposed to watch and enjoy, not analyze and take notes. At least that's how Michael Hirst, creator, executive producer and writer of "The Tudors'" feels about it.

"It's a silly criticism. It's not supposed to be history. It's a drama, a soap opera that's based on historical material," he said. "As long as people aren't wearing jeans or caftans, to me, that's acceptable."

Hirst, who also wrote the screenplays for "Elizabeth" and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," said he initially laughed when Ben Silverman (now head of NBC entertainment) approached him years ago asking if he could "turn the Tudors into a TV soap opera."

Besides the semi-absurd notion of morphing one of Europe's most menacing monarchs into a "Young and the Restless"-esque heartthrob, historical drama is a tough sell on the small screen.

Despite critical acclaim, HBO's "Rome" fell after two seasons due to low ratings and high production costs. But Hirst figured if David Chase could make Tony Soprano's mob seem like family to millions of people outside North Jersey, he might be able to do the same for Henry VIII's court.

"Americans have a pretty big resistance to watching men in tights. So one of the things I was commissioned to do was to make history relevant," he said.

"Instead of writing something where the characters seemed like people from another planet, I wanted to do something that resonated with contemporary audiences. I didn't want these people to seem remote in any way," he said. "The basis of the first season was a young guy who's married to an older woman, meets a younger woman and then wants a divorce. That's a universal story."

Viewers agreed. About 900,000 viewers -- more than three times Showtime's average primetime audience -- tuned in for the show's premiere last April.

Now that it has a fan base and is coming out with new episodes before the bulk of network dramas still catching up after the Hollywood writers strike, "The Tudors'" stands to score regal ratings again. Its insanely good-looking cast can't hurt.

"So many people on the show are attractive," said Lindsay Soll, Entertainment Weekly's self-proclaimed "Tudor" expert. "You look at the whole royal court -- they're basically models. And the costumes and the sets are gorgeous. It's so colorful and elegant and dripping with luxury. They make it so rich."

Disgusted by reality TV? Sick of shows about spoiled suburban housewives and self-important lawyers? So what if "The Tudors" doesn't tell it exactly like it was -- it remains far enough removed from modern life, and from anything else on television, that it's worth watching for those reasons alone, she said.

"You can't go, 'Oh my God, he wouldn't really leave his wife for her,'" Soll said. "You can't look at it the same way as 'The Hills.'"