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Soapy 'Tudors' is all surface

Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as King Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer plays Anne Boleyn in Showtime's dramatic series "The Tudors." (jonathan hession/showtime)

Someday, actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers may win an Oscar for playing a spoiled little rock star. He has a classic glamour puss -- the petulant mouth, the glinting eyes, the vain aspect. He comes naturally by that I-just-wrecked-a-hotel-suite look, and you know he could silence a roomful of sycophants with but a glare. The Mick Jagger strut? He calls it walking. For him, every day is a Details photo shoot.

But I don't expect Rhys Meyers to win prizes for his King Henry VIII in Showtime's "The Tudors," which premieres Sunday night at 10. He's too bratty, too contemporary, too buzzcut . He's gym-boyish when he ought to be lusty and manly; callow when he ought to be magnificently smug; irritating when he ought to be tragic. Rhys Meyers is miscast, and not because he defies the conventional image of King Henry VIII as a round fellow with a beard. It's his performance that's too thin.

Alas, the lead actor isn't the only disappointment in this expensive 10-part series, which arrives on the crest of a massive promotional wave. The script is thin, too, rarely penetrating the surface of its many 16th-century emotional, religious, marital, and political situations. Written by Michael Hirst , who also wrote about Henry's daughter in Cate Blanchett's "Elizabeth," the series goes only rock-opera deep, moving full-steam ahead without much accounting for character motivation.

Amid his tantrums, Showtime's King Henry plays an almost farcical chess match with his country's future: He wants to fight France, then he wants to find immortality as the founder of "The Treaty of Universal Peace," then Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor become his allies, then France is his ally again. Meanwhile his ego games are frequently interrupted by ladies in waiting, sex scenes, and cries of "Oh, yes, your Majesty!" This is one costume drama that can't wait to get its characters out of their costumes.

The political oscillations are given an entertaining tweak by Sam Neill as the nefarious Cardinal Thomas Wolsey . Wolsey manipulates Henry like a puppet in his power play to become pope, humoring the childish king like an ambitious record-label producer might treat "the talent." Neill clearly relishes the role of a transparent opportunist on the order of J.R. Ewing, and he also manages to evoke pathos as Wolsey's star begins to fall. Wolsey's antithesis, the conscience-driven Sir Thomas More , is given a flat portrayal by Jeremy Northam .

The series hits full lather with the soapier and more generic love games at court. Tonight's episode begins during the final period of Henry's marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy ), who has failed to give Henry the son he craves. Soon Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer ) is making the scene, having been sent to seduce Henry by her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Nick Dunning ), who deploys his two daughters like a pimp. Boleyn wants Anne to influence Henry against Wolsey, and Anne is willing. She works Henry into a funk of desire as she dislodges him from Katherine.

As Anne, Dormer gives an arch look here, and an insolent look there, but she establishes no cumulative dramatic weight. She's a kitten pretending to be a cat. Doyle Kennedy, on the other hand, is stunning as Katherine, who is wiser than her husband, and rightfully paranoid about her future at his hands. No matter how strong and steadfast Katherine is, she's doomed to be chattel like every other woman of her time.

Doyle Kennedy achieves the grand sorrow and desolation that the drama so badly needs. She is the best thing about the series. She may be encased in fabric and jewels, and only able to move stiffly, but she makes each of Katherine's feelings naked and unmistakable.

Shallow as "The Tudors" is, I will say that I watched all six of the episodes that Showtime sent for review, and it was not a painful experience. The costuming is gorgeous, the naked frolicking is pretty, the editing is brisk. The show is not moving, but it moves. There is a bastard son, a murder by suffocation, a wrestling match, an insurrection by Lord Buckingham, and a gay musical genius. The story is far from boring. Indeed, the fear of being boring may be what led its creators and Showtime down such a lightweight path.

With the excellent series "Dexter," "Brotherhood," and "Sleeper Cell," Showtime has been on a great run in its fight to rate alongside HBO. "The Tudors" is the channel's attempt to bring pay-cable frankness to bear on history in the manner of HBO's "Rome" and "Deadwood." But, unlike "Rome" and "Deadwood," "The Tudors" doesn't bother with the psychological layering and political resonance that non-commercial TV offers. It settles for ordinary kicks.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit