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All lathered up anew: Showtime's The Tudors still cleans up nicely as a hot-blooded, post-medieval soap

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are a tough matchup for Pope Paul III.

Premiering: Sunday, March 30th at 8 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jeremy Northam, Peter O'Toole, Nick Dunning, James Frain, Henry Cavill, David Alpay, Hans Matheson
Created and written by: Michael Hirst

Showtime's Henry VIII remains thin and thinner-skinned in the person of Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Still, there's more weight to him in this second go-around for Showtime's The Tudors. Adding a small helping of facial hair helps somewhat. It's mostly in the bearing, though.

Henry VIII perhaps should look physically more like Paul Giamatti's pudgy John Adams in HBO's competing miniseries of the same name. But Rhys Meyers sells his svelte version of the king by virtue of his imposing screen presence. So what if his Henry could slide easily into a pair of Guess jeans? He's no less a simmering despot in his zeal to push the Catholic Church aside and reign as England's Supreme Being.

Showtime sent the first half of the 10-episode Season 2, which begins Sunday night. It's easily devoured in the manner of Henry VIII finishing off a mutton chop. Historical liberties again are taken in the interests of an overall soap opera-ish presentation. Yet The Tudors manages to have it both ways. Its excesses are offset by both powerful performances and relatively deep-thinking on matters of faith, hope and conniving.

Rhys Meyers pulls the main oar, but others excel as well. Maria Doyle Kennedy again is superb as the exiled Queen Katherine while Natalie Dormer comes to full flower in the role of throne-thirsty Anne Boleyn. Principled Sir Thomas More, the king's former chancellor, is memorable in the hands of Jeremy Northam. And James Frain takes the full measure of the pliant yet fleetingly conscience-stricken Thomas Cromwell.

There's Peter O'Toole, too. And the old Master Thespian still knows how to carry a scene in his limited appearances as Pope Paul III. Ornate outfits further bring the characters to vibrant life, and costume designer Joan Bergin again has outdone herself.

Alas, there's also a totally fabricated assassination plot, featuring a cloaked hitman taking his indirect marching orders from the Pope himself. Writer/creator Michael Hirst has gone a bit bonkers in this respect, particularly during Chapter 3.

This is when the lone gunman sets up shop in the equivalent of ye olde Texas School Book Depository. He fires a single shot at what amounts to King Henry VIII's motorcade. It's intended for Anne Boleyn, but instead hits what today would be a Secret Service agent. Oh wretched screenwriter, thou hast misfired in so many ways here.

The Tudors also includes another arguably obligatory gay character. This time it's a fictional violinist named Mark Smeaton (David Alpay). In Season One, it was a choir director. As with the assassination gambit, Hirst seems to be over-stuffing the storyline rather than working with the potent ingredients he already has.

This is mostly very good stuff, though. Visually exquisite, emotionally involving, sexually alluring and sometimes deliciously cheeky, The Tudors deserves its stature as the most popular attraction in Showtime's history. It even gets away with a Chapter 5 scene in which the increasingly roving Henry spots a maiden to his liking while out horse-riding.

"Are you really the King of England?" she asks as they frolic in the all together.

"No, I was only pulling your leg," he says while thrusting from behind.

That same chapter ends with the well-documented beheading of the steadfast More. A small silver crucifix drops from his hand as the deed is done. It's quickly bathed in an enveloping pool of his blood during a closing scene of considerable artistry and power.

So watch The Tudors with the expectation of being entertained, edified and maybe occasionally just a bit stupefied. All in all it's the Poker equivalent of four Kings, falling just a bit short of the optimum Royal Flush.

Grade: A-minus