Considering Bush’s and Blair’s plummetingly unpopular reigns, perhaps it’s predictable that one of history’s most boisterous, outsize heads of state, Henry VIII, is of late being portrayed as such a total bummer. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Eric Bana’s Henry is a sullen sad sack. In Showtime’s The Tudors, Jonathan Rhys Meyers‘ Henry is a bratty, glowering wisp of a king. I’m not saying the real Henry wasn’t spoiled or megalomaniacal, but at the height of his power, the man had charisma. My kingdom for a Henry with vivaciousness and lust for life (Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days comes to mind). Certainly The Tudors — now entering its second season — portrays an interestingly flawed Henry. Here is a man who betrays his first wife, Katherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), and breaks with the Catholic Church — sending England into chaos — so he can marry the enchanting Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer). But he doesn’t appear to enjoy any of it. The silky Meyers leers and whispers, but he doesn’t dominate. The addition of this season’s porny mustache certainly doesn’t help: He seems like he should be dancing ironically to retro ’80s pop rather than organizing the new Church of England.
And boy, is there a lot of organizing, administrating, and discussing in The Tudors. Someone did not get the ”show, don’t tell” memo: A punishing amount of each episode is given over to exposition. Cardinals debate whether the king can divorce Katherine, Thomas More (Jeremy Northam) deliberates over conscience and Catholic doctrine, Peter O’Toole twinkles as the Pope, and many, many conspirators meet in shadowy hallways. (Damn, the 1530s were dark.) So numerous and immemorable are the players that by episode 3, when one of the king’s alienated friends yells, ”I have not forgotten Pennington!” I thought: Who the hell is Pennington? Worse, the earthshaking union between Henry and Anne is nearly as talky. She wants to be queen, he wants her to be queen (I’ll spare you the 15 versions of this conversation), but the pair, pretty and unknowable, lack any clear reason why they’re so smitten. The audience is expected to take their word for it — and there are plenty of words, just few that resonate. In one scene, a triumphantly pregnant Anne giddily declares a craving for apples, and she becomes a real person, but The Tudors provides too few of those moments. Instead, Henry and Anne nag and harp and tongue each other. It’s like asking us to root for a particularly vapid reality TV couple. Blame in part Doyle Kennedy, who, as the stubborn, spirited, dulcet-voiced Katherine, makes everyone else seem like lightweights. She gives a good name to grown-ups. C-