The best teacher I ever had was my high school history teacher, Doc Worthington. Obsession with all things Braveheart aside, Doc taught us that history was not just a series of events, but a succession of people. Real people — ones with the same wants, desires, and flaws as those of us taking his class. And the events that changed the world didn’t, for the large part, start out of some noble ideal, but because the wrong person was slighted.

Or, in the case of Henry VIII, because the King of France kicked his ass in a wrestling match.

The probably-too-cynical for high school theory of Doc Worthington kept pinging in my brain as I watched the first two episodes of The Tudors, Showtime’s series about the early reign of King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Several decades and wives away from the fatty we remember him as, Henry here is an athletic twenty-five year old, but he’s no less petty, no less decadent. And while there’s that intial disconnect between the corpulent Henry and the tennis-playing, wench-nailing one, the series acknowledges that in its opening credits. (Over paintings of the later Henry VII, Meyers narrates “You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends. To get to
the heart of the story, you have to go back to the beginning.”)

Even two episodes in, you can see the two main arcs of the series being laid out. The first is Henry’s relationship with his most famous wife, Anne Boleyn, played by the “where the hell did she come from?” Natalie Dormer. Boleyn’s the daughter of the former English Ambassador to France, who already tried unsuccessfully to pimp out Anne’s sister Mary to Henry VIII. (But not before Mary treated the King to one of those “only on cable” sights, a medieval blowjob.) Ambassador Boleyn’s motives seem to be related to gaining favor with the king — i.e., “suction.”

The second arc in The Tudors can best be described as “A Man For All Seasons: The Series.” Already, the series has devoted considerable time to Henry VIII’s relationship with the 500 pound behemoth of humanist philosophy, the Magic Martyr himself, Siiiiiir Thoooooommmaaasss Moooooore! (Like my friend Jenni says, once a Catholic school kid, always a Catholic school kid.) More (played by Jeremy Northam) is Henry’s former teacher and represents his better half, pushing Henry to be a just, fair ruler, while Sam Neill plays Cardinal Wollsey, the Palpatine to Northam’s Obi-Wan. Wollsey wants power, for himself, for Henry, and for England. And you wonder why that guy never became Pope.

Like Henry tells the audience in the opening narration, we know how both these stories end. The fun of The Tudors is its take on the journey from the bedroom to the executioner’s block. (Spoiler!) The Tudors also follows a trend in historical drama, especially on television, which presents all figures and events in the Doc Worthington mode: human, petty, power mad. So yes, Henry breaks the sixteenth century version of the United Nations up because he got pwned in a wrestling match, and the Duke of Buckingham tries to overthrow the king because he caught one of Henry’s boys (Henry Cavill, one of the aformentioned posse, along with Dead Like Me’s Callum Blue) in flagrante delicato with his daughter. For the record, she looked like she was worth it.

This presentation of historical figures, along with Rome and Deadwood, begs the question “What’s the deal with all this revisionism?” If I had to guess, I’d guess it has to do with the pre-eminent issue in the world and America today: Iraq. The motivations behind the war were largely out of the same simple, human motive (revenge, greed), and in order to feel better about our current President, it may help audiences to see other figures in a similar fashion. This theory gets all shot to hell when you consider that The Tudors and Rome are joint British TV productions, but there you go.

This is a cable series, which means that attention must be paid. (If Willy Loman had lived, do you think he’d be a Wire fan?) To recap all the political manuevering and attempted assassinations and treaties made and broken just over the first two episodes would spoil the fun, not to mention take more time than I think you’re willing to devote to me telling you about it. It also helps if you have a basic knowledge of the time period so you can catch shout-outs like Martin Luther, but it’s not required. But if you’re a fan of Deadwood, Rome, or even the labyrinthine plotting of The Sopranos or The Wire, The Tudors (whose second season starts in March) is worth checking out on DVD.

I’ll continue to recap the show and offer my thoughts as I progress through this series.