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NEW SEASON OF 'TUDORS' COULD USE MORE BODICE-RIPPING.

Byline: David Kronke

TV Critic

You can't fault Showtime for accentuating the salaciously carnal aspect of "The Tudors" in its marketing campaign for the show's second season, but, likewise, you can't blame viewers if they find the actual result a bit of a disappointing cheat.

For while we've been inundated with countless images of Jonathan Rhys Meyers' King Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer's Anne Boleyn gazing upon us and one another with sultry bedroom eyes, season two of "The Tudors" is mainly about the Reformation and how England wrested its religious tradition from the yoke of the Catholic Church. And, by definition, that's just not all that sexy.

So despite the breathless intimations of the ad campaign, through four episodes, very few bodices get ripped. We see far more of the internecine politics of the king's court, as he banishes his first wife, Queen Katharine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), to oblivion and bullies England's representatives of Pope Paul III (Peter O'Toole) to accede to his wishes that the Church recognize the divorce, or watch as its power over England is emasculated.

What intrigue there is -- the pope wonders why someone simply doesn't "get rid of" the "king's whore," leading into botched assassination attempts -- is only mildly intriguing. Series creator Michael Hirst never quite leads viewers to appreciate the irony that although Henry was right in trying to stem the Church's abuses, he did so mainly for licentious reasons.

And if I never see another arid, clavier-driven ballroom dance scene in a period drama that ups the opulence quotient but stops the drama dead in its tracks, it will be too soon. "The Tudors" is laden with such scenes.

Worse, some of the performers have devolved into staid, costume-drama theatrics. Rhys Meyers still has his electric moments, though in this season his Henry has become far more glum, grimly asserting his power rather than exulting in it. Dormer seemed miscast last season, and with her role elevated here, so does the fact that she sticks out like a sore thumb: Her curled lips seem more curdled than inviting; her eyebrows arch more his-

trionically than Stephen Colbert's. She's the 14th-century equivalent of a Valley Girl.

It's left to supporting players to give memorable performances.

O'Toole exquisitely exudes droll menace as the calculating pope, and Jeremy Northam offers the most human turn as Sir Thomas More, Henry's principled adviser, struggling to survive his king's megalomania with a balance of piety and political acuity.

That the most resonant characterization in a series essaying rampant debauchery is that of a decent human being may be the most perverse thing "The Tudors" has to offer.

Making sense of 'Sense and Sensibility'

"Sense and Sensibility," "Masterpiece's" adaptation of Jane Austen's first published novel (in 1811), plays a little like a course in Austen 101: The marks are hit, the exposition is delivered, the notes are struck, and the characters move on.

It's a rare misstep for the screenwriter Andrew Davies, who may simply have too much on his plate right now: He has more than revived the venerated "Doctor Who" franchise and added the spinoffs "Torchwood" and the upcoming "The Sarah Jane Adventures"; he also has another "Masterpiece" adaptation -- "A Room With a View" -- on the way.

This final installment of "Masterpiece's" "The Complete Jane Austen" just feels a little phoned-in from the script standpoint.

Some of the performers prove hearteningly capable of making the somewhat flat dialogue ring, but nonetheless, the overall impression is that this is a fairly bloodless and mechanical production. Emma Thompson's Oscar-winning 1995 screenplay boasts far more wit, (hrt)lan and charm.

Austen's tale relates the varying turns of fortune in the lives of the Dashwood sisters -- Elinor (newcomer Hattie Morahan), the practical, measured older sister; and Marianne (Charity Wakefield), the impetuous drama queen. When their father dies and they and their mother and sister are forced out of their manse to dwell in a ramshackle cottage, they find a number of gentlemen interested in their charms.

Edward (Dan Stevens), Elinor's stepbrother's brother-in-law, is a dashing fellow with none of his family's pretensions and a fondness for her that he is, for some reason, incapable of communicating. Col. Brandon (David Morrissey) is heroic and wealthy, but Marianne finds him too old for her tastes, preferring the rakish Willoughby (Dominic Cooper).

Needless to say, the women are in for some grave disappointments before true love prevails. Alas, Davies' screenplay offers more exposition than character development; it's kind of a connect-the-dots affair.

Whatever humor there is to be had here comes from Elinor and Marianne being surrounded by characters who prattle on endlessly and cluelessly, but their own dialogue is scarcely more elegant. Still, Morahan and Wakefield elevate their characters and make them genuinely engaging, deserving of far better suitors than the ploddingly earnest gents thrust into their paths.

Ullman's humor is in an unfortunate 'State'

"Tracey Ullman's State of the Union" is more about her makeup team's artistry and her versatile performances than it is about comedy.

The show is free-form to the point of seeming scattershot -- each episode just sort of bops around America (think of it as GoogleEarth with jokes, only without the jokes), spending a couple of minutes with each character. Most of the segments are so short that calling them "sketches" seems like overkill -- each has about one idea, maybe one punch line if they're feeling generous, and then off we go to the next bit.

Ullman plays "ordinary" Americans, such as a pharmacist whose filling of prescriptions invariably evolves into a Bollywood musical number (almost amusing once, simply tiresome when it's run into the ground), a plainspoken Midwestern woman filled with stolid long-suffering and insipid wisdom, a stereotypical African-American airport security screener and a pregnant 70-year-old.

She also offers some eviscerating portraits of celebrities, such as Arianna Huffington (who says the word "blog" a lot), a blithering David Beckham, a ditzy Renee Zellweger, an even ditzier Cameron Diaz, clueless crusading environmentalist Laurie David (always seen on a private plane) and hopeless old fogey Andy Rooney. Dissing Rooney in particular is like shooting fish in a barrel, and yet the material is shockingly bereft of humor.

Each appearance of the recurring characters results in a variation of the same gag, except for one about an investment banker having an affair with her boss (Scott Bakula), which is simply stunningly cliched.

Perhaps Ullman's show misfires because it, in a stab at edginess, aspires to depict a dystopian America and comes off as simply sour and heavy-handed. Perhaps it's because none of the ideas were particularly inspired to begin with, just more an opportunity for Ullman to strut her stuff. Nonetheless, if this indeed is the state of the union, we're in more trouble than anyone ever imagined.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638 david.kronke(at)dailynews.com www.insidesocal.com/tv/

THE TUDORS - Two and one half stars

>What: Season-two premiere of the drama about King Henry VIII's tumultuous reign.

>Where: Showtime.

>When: 9 and 11 tonight; 10 and 11 p.m. Monday, 10 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday, 9 p.m. Thursday, 10 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday.

>In a nutshell: Internecine king's-court politics supercedes the promised bodice-ripping.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY - Two and one half stars

>What: "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation of the Jane Austen classic.

>Where: KCET (Channel 28).

>When: 9 tonight and 9 p.m. April 6.

>In a nutshell: Rent the Emma Thompson version directed by Ang Lee instead - it's shorter.

TRACEY ULLMAN'S STATE OF THE UNION - Two stars

>What: The chameleon-like comedian portrays everything from ordinary Americans to pampered celebrities in a satirical look at America.

>Where: Showtime.

>When: 10 tonight.

>In a nutshell: Heavy-handed and not very funny.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Above: Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalie Dormer are the tempestuous Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in "The Tudors," starting its second season tonight. Right: Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield play sisters in the "Masterpiece" adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," tonight on KCET.
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 30, 2008
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