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T.V. on TV: The Tudors, This American Life and Planet Earth

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T.V. on TV: <em>The Tudors</em>, <em>This American Life</em> and <em>Planet Earth</em>

If you don’t already know what to expect from The Tudors, the credits will tip you off. Closeups of characters staring lustily into the camera are intercut with romantic pursuits through opulent hallways and a hefty dose of violence and sex. It’s grand history reimagined as borderline-tawdry soap opera. The images recall HBO’s similar, superior Rome, which recently ended its run. But by the end of the Tudors pilot, you’re used to the fact that this isn’t the next great TV drama. It’s just old-fashioned trashy fun—a bodice-ripper that aspires to more but never quite gets there.

If The Tudors works at all, it’s mainly due to Jonathan Rhys-Meyer’s central performance as Henry VIII. Henry’s desire to produce a male heir and his overactive libido arguably changed the world (or at least the institutions of the Catholic Church and marriage), and the show’s publicity materials definitely embrace that aspect of the Henry story. Rhys-Meyers plays Henry as something approaching a rock star. He strides in and out of scenes, seduces women almost by looking at them and wanders through life with a perpetual sneer. This isn’t the most original acting choice in history, but Rhys-Meyers has so much fun with Henry’s sheer debauchery and lust for sex and violence that you forgive him fairly quickly. When Henry decides to go to war on the slimmest of pretexts, it doesn’t feel like a commentary on modern events so much as the outgrowth of a spoiled rich king’s impetuous desires (then again, maybe it does feel like a commentary on modern events).

The other actors are well-cast, but they rather blend together. The series is over-expository about some things (Henry reminds Maria Doyle Kennedy’s Queen Catherine, “You are my wife!” over and over—in case we missed the couple’s conversations about their daughter, and the queen’s placement by Henry’s side at official events) but it doesn’t expend much energy sussing out the complicated family dynamics that determine who likes Henry, who befriends him and who wants him dead. If the writers plan to explore these relationships over time, that could prove to be an interesting creative choice; if not, there’s always Wikipedia. In any case, the fact that some relationships and political realities are overexplained while others are glossed-over makes the first two episodes feel frustratingly incomplete. (Luckily, exposition sounds better with a British accent, a fact that allows Sam Neill’s Cardinal Wolsey to get away with reminding other characters of the tenuous European political climate, a tidbit they doubtless already know.)

The publicity materials and opening credits make it seem as though the series will fixate on Henry’s efforts to leave Catherine and take up with Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer, who accomplishes little in this opening stretch beyond being very, very pretty). But this storyline gets short shrift in the first two episodes, which concentrate on Henry forming political alliances instead of seeking war with France and Italy. Rys-Meyers and Dormer are fine individually, but when they’re together, their chemistry is hit-and-miss. The Anne Boleyn story is still the best-known aspect of Henry’s life, and if the series is going to start with that famous story (just as Rome started with Julius Caesar’s story), better to get right into it.

Many of The Tudors’ biggest problems stem from the fact that it’s arriving on pay cable soon after the arguably premature demise of Rome. The latter had its own flaws, but it was more consistent than The Tudors and explored bigger themes; it was a serialized twist on the swords-n-sandals epic that pointed out how simultaneously alien and familiar ancient Roman life seems to us now. The Tudors is set five centuries ago, but that’s close enough to the present to kill a degree of curiosity about what life was like back then. In addition, The Tudors is mostly content to be a soap opera about the royals. Showtime’s series abdicates the epic sweep of Rome, which often tried to take in all of Roman society (cross-cutting, for instance, between Caesar, the lower aristocracy, soldiers and slaves). Even though The Tudors’ focus is more limited by design, it still seems myopic in comparison. (It also suffers from production values that are clearly inferior to HBO’s; the costumes, in particular, feel less lived-in.) The show is is handsome enough (the lush locations help), and the direction makes smart use of overhead shots, deploying them to establish geography, show a man dying or take in the pomp of a royal event, but overall, the filmmaking just isn’t as imaginative as Rome’s.

Of course, those who are predisposed to check out The Tudors won’t be watching in to compare 16th century social pressures to our own; they’ll be watching because Henry VIII married a bunch of women and beheaded two of them. In this aspect, The Tudors delivers. There’s some nice, violent jousting and a lot of nakedness, Rhys-Meyers presiding over it all with a disdainful eye, clapping haughtily or putting his wife in her place.

Showtime’s This American Life (Thursdays, 10:30 p.m.) is still finding itself, but it’s worth watching because it looks like nothing else on TV. An adaptation of the long-running and very popular NPR radio series of the same name, it resembles a weekly Errol Morris film, split into smaller segments and handily capped off within 30 minutes. The series uses of archival footage, filmed interviews and staged recreations to tell stories of real people living real lives in the United States. The radio series is more vivid in its storytelling, and more inclined to offer longer, shaggier narratives with ambiguous motivations and no pat resolutions; but the TV version has already found a distinctive look that hints at depths its directors and editors are still learning to plumb. In particular, one segment profiles a Mormon painter who gathers suitable human subjects to appear in his depictions of bibilical scenes; the image of him constructing a tableaux is strikingly lit and composed.

The moments when the storytelling rises to equal the visuals hint at where This American Life could (and hopefully will) go. The first episode—featuring the stories of a farmer who clones his favorite bull only to find the clone is nothing like his old bull, and an improv group that unites to give a minor-league band its best show ever—push too hard for profundity. In the first segment, host Ira Glass—creator and narrator of the NPR show—seems to keep trying to force the farmer to admit that his new bull is nothing like his old one; it’s as if he’s pushing for the kind of neat wrapup that his radio series avoids. But by the time the episode about the Mormon painter rolls around, the series seems to have given itself permission to enter all of the messy complications of the real lives it purports to chronicle. The painter hopes that by turning these people into religious figures, they may become closer to God, even if that’s not what they want (other people in the subjects’ lives feel differently). The story starts in a simple place, but grows into a more intriguing account of how hard it is to leave a life of faith and then try to reconnect with it later.

Just as Halo sold Xboxes and The Matrix sold DVD players, the Discovery Channel’s rebroadcast of the BBC’s Planet Earth (Sundays, 8 p.m.) is going to sell HDTV sets. On a regular TV set, the series is a handsomely shot nature documentary, full of interesting new images of animal behavior, but not substantially different from something you might see on PBS or in a National Geographic special. In HD, though, the series is a hypnotizing eye-popper—the sort of thing you wish a dedicated channel would run 24/7, so you could turn it on and veg out to it. If the series has a flaw, it’s that it’s deeply self-congratulatory. Much of the filming was accomplished with HD cameras that didn’t exist even a decade ago, and the narration (by Sigourney Weaver) is only too happy to remind us of this, as well as the fact that many of the things being seen here have been captured on camera for the first time.

But as annoying as Weaver’s narration is, it doesn’t damage the series. Watching Planet Earth is about seeing this planet captured in all its gobsmacking beauty. It’s about shots of a snow leopard pursuing its prey at high altitude or the feet of elephants churning up water as they swim or a single nautilus drifting away from the camera to the bottom of an inky black sea. It’s so gorgeous that the narration could consist of Sigourney Weaver shouting nonsense syllables over and over and you’d just put the TV on mute, happy to drift through images of the wide, wonderful world.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.