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THE TUDORS
Season One

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, henry Cavill, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill
Director: Various
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Doly 2.0, Spanish mono
Video: Color Anamorphic Widescreen 16:9
Studio:  CBS DVD
Features: See Review
Length: 9 hours, 16 minutes
Release Date: January 1, 2008

“All the achievements of a lifetime are worthless without an heir to succeed us.” - King Henry VIII of England

Show ***1/2

The Tudor Dynasty was a fascinating time for several reasons.  Britain was becoming a true world power, the Renaissance was in bloom, and for better or worse, the world was beginning to throw off the absolute, unquestioned authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  Kings saw themselves as amoral, not subject to the laws of the world or the Church, and could do as they pleased for whatever reason.  But whereas Henry II bent to the will of the church after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, Henry VIII waged war against the Church, his own people, and much of Europe, all to gain a male heir with the woman he chose.  Unlike Henry II, he would not mourn the execution of his closest advisor, Thomas Moore.

Michael Hirst, known for writing the marvelous Elizabeth movies and Have no Fear: The life of John Paul II  wrote all ten episodes and has not only made history come alive but managed to maintain excellent continuity for the whole season, which is tough in any genre. This is a marvelous DVD release on par with HBO series, just as the show is at that level.  Each episode presents a text summary of the ensuing program and a video recap of the last one, though there are no scene selections, which makes is tough to find particular scenes of our favorite king negotiating, murdering, wenching, etc.  Being a young handsome king was work!  You have to blindly skip from section to section with no labels, much as the king himself jumped beds and alliances. 

The Tudors is an important, ambitious project for Showtime because they have long wanted a series that will prompt viewers not only to watch the shows of course but to subscribe to their network for something other than movies.  AMC's oustanding Mad Men raises their ratings considerably, and cable networks have always known in the long run they would have to do something other than show movies that anyone could rent somewhere else, and that to make real money they needed something more than cable fees.  HBO has had several hits like The Sopranos and Sex and the City and they won so many awards and cemented many viewers who might not have even subscribed to cable at all. Showtime and other networks knew they could also gain money and credibility.  HBO's Rome proved that history can be cool:  even though we know Caesar is doomed, network television won’t show him with his lovers or his blood spewing everywhere as he is murdered in broa! d daylight in the senate, so we can’t look away.  Thus The Tudors, with its lush and expensive sets and cast, is Showtime’s shot at the big time.

For the most part the show succeeds.  It is not as wild or carnal as Rome and does take some small liberties with history, but it is so very believable that even when we know what is coming, we can’t wait to see it happen.  We meet an intellectually curious, arrogant, ambitious, lustful, handsome young king who wants it all and wants it now. 

It is hard to believe that this is the same obese monster of so many paintings (he did get heavy later in life) or that someday he would he would eventually execute 78,000 of his own people, including many trusted advisors and his own Secretary of the Exchequer, Sir Thomas Moore.  He also tore the Catholic Church to pieces literally and figuratively, seizing one third of England’s lands from the Church and destroying ancient monasteries only a few years after the Pope called him a Defender of the Faith for standing up to Luther and his followers.  The King orders the burning of heretics and their writings, under the!  eyes of archetypal family man Sir Thomas Moore, knowing that he will lose his head for obeying his conscience rather than his king.  In one of the pivotal moments of the series, Henry promises Moore that he will never have to choose, and the king wins him over. 

As usual, the strength of any good series is the casting, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a force of nature as Henry VIII.  Maria Doyle Kennedy is the very embodiment of respect, style, and royalty as Queen Catherine of Aragon.  She is portrayed as very much loving the king, devoted to her religion, but also able to maneuver behind the scenes to thwart Henry’s ambitious to divorce her.  Natalie Dormer is marvelous as Anne Boleyn, a brunette who curls her lips in a curt know-it-all sneer who is nothing if not desirable and elusive.  The rest of the cast is marvelous if somewhat understated.  We get to meet Thomas Tallis, one of Britain’s finest composers, and the poet Thomas Wyatt who was Boleyn’s most likely future husband. The most unusual casting choice was Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, since he is so calm and does not do a very good English accent, but his quiet intensity grows with every episode and we totally believe his scheming with other church officials as the desperate threats of a man whose career (and life) are nearing their end. 

Video ****

Flawless, and the lush scenery and sets are even more believable on disc.

Audio ****

No problems, excellent mix, rear channels used mostly for storms, horses galloping, music, etc.  We also get to see Henry playing tennis and jousting, both of which are all the more real with the excellent surround sound.

Features **1/2

There is a multi-part (you can't watch them all at once for some reason) featurette about the making of the series, which is interesting but full of the usual mutual admiration society silliness.  There are episodes of several other series including Californication, This American Life, and Penn and Teller BS.  You can also "stream" the first two episodes of Dexter: Season Two and see other Showtime seriesThis all seems like shameless advertising, which movie studios do all the time, at least Showtime put them on the last disc instead of forcing us to watch them first.

I would have liked more commentaries and interviews with the cast but we do learn some interesting things about the set design and costumes, which remind me of the painstaking detail of The Lord of the Rings.  But perhaps Season Two will contain these.

Summary:

Hard to believe there were only ten episodes; they were so rich that it seemed like twice as many.   I hope the writer's strike does not affect the coming of Season Two, since press releases say that Peter O'Toole will play the pope in the big intercontinental showdown.  Even though I know what is coming--or maybe because I know--I can't wait!

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