Blazingly Gratuitous Sex

And other missteps in The Tudors.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in The Tudors 

How many Woody Allen fans have remarked on the wit and luck that brought him to cast Scarlett Johansson’s mouth opposite that of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point? Her plush and ebullient kisser sparred with his wickedly sleek one, and the pairing was a coup, delivering feature-length frisson and doubtlessly securing the movie its own special place in some lip-fetishist’s hall of fame.

Rhys Meyers again gives his petulant puss an invigorating workout as Henry VIII in The Tudors (Showtime, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET)—consuming a piece of fruit with intense smuttiness here, bussing the long calf of a lithe bedmate there, forever pouting with impatience and boredom, snarling just to pass the time. The actor also deploys his haughty cheekbones, chilling glare, and presentable biceps to decent effect in the early episodes of this costume drama.

That, however, is about it. One hesitates to say that the actor phones his performance in. It’s more like he dictates it to an assistant who then submits it via fax. You too might lack an appropriate sense of conviction if delivered this script. When in doubt, which is often, the show goes in for bursts of expository declamation. Here, Henry explains to no less than Cardinal Wolsey a beef he’s got with someone on his wife’s side of the family: “Now he’s not only Charles V, King of Spain, he’s also the Holy Roman Emperor! His dominions are vast! His wealth extraordinary! And he’s only 20 years old!” And he’s got a Hapsburg Jaw! Also known as mandibular prognathism!

The Tudors has been pitching itself as a take on the youngish Henry as a “rock star,” and its producers have gone a long way toward delivering just that—though not, perhaps, as laughably far as you might hope. Henry’s antics, while often very close to camp, come in for a fundamentally self-serious approach. So don’t wag your head when, taking a break from the ministrations of his tailor, Henry sleevelessly pops off to a meal looking like Rhys Meyers’ glam-rocker from Velvet Goldmine. Do not snicker when, insulted by Francis I of France—”In most things, we French excel you. … The greatest philosophical minds, engineers, architects, and of course we have the most beautiful women”—the king of England strips off his shirt to wrestle the frog before a room of hooting courtiers. And don’t ask what the deal is with the scene where Henry pioneers the art of trashing a hotel room.

The show’s advance hype has also dwelt on its bounty of gratuitous sex scenes. Again, the The Tudors makes good on its promise. There are many sex scenes here, and though neither convincing nor hot, they are blazingly gratuitous. Three distinct and not entirely congruous shows are duking it out in The Tudors—a “prestigious” tale of court intrigue and political maneuvering that unfolds at the pace of a funeral cortege and with the hush of a reference library; an aggro Renaissance fair that feasts on scenes of murder, jousting, and tennis played at the speed of jai alai; and then the soft-core skin flick, the scenes of which start feeling like blips from some scrambled Cinemax fare of yore.

Amid all of this, we get some weakly dramatized history. As the show picks up, Catherine of Aragon is still hanging in there, the Boleyn girls are just coming onto the scene, and Wolsey—played by Sam Neill with an extreme unctuousness that’s the most exciting thing here—is trying to scheme his way to the papacy. Meanwhile, great philosophical minds philosophize greatly. “I’ve received a gift from the Duke of Urbino,” Henry broods to Sir Thomas More. “It’s a book called The Prince by a Florentine, Niccolò Machiavelli. … It’s not like your book Utopia. It’s less … utopian.” Oh, that pause. The Tudors adores a searching pause. There’s a good cheesy-creepy one when Thomas Boleyn strokes the head of his daughter Anne and gives her a pep talk about snagging her man: “Perhaps you could imagine a way to keep his interest more … prolonged.” In the quiet of those caesuras, you can hear the spirit of the show at work. It’s underwritten and … overripe.