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New series review: The Tudors (Showtime)

The man who will be King: Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Showtime's Henry VIII and earlier as Elvis in a CBS miniseries encoring Saturday.

Premiering: Sunday (April 1) at 9 p.m. central (10 eastern) on Showtime
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sam Neill, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jeremy Northam, Ruta Gedmintas, Gabrielle Anwar, Steven Waddington
Produced by: Michael Hirst, Morgan O'Sullivan, Ousama Rawi, Tom Conroy

Premium cable's ruling class is still headed by HBO, although the crown rests uneasily of late.

Sunday's premiere of Showtime's mesmerizing The Tudors is another jewel in the network's latter day treasure chest. HBO will flex on Easter night with the last gasps of The Sopranos followed by the first of eight new Entourage episodes.

Not to be entirely outdone, Showtime has Weeds, Dexter and The Brotherhood ready to go with new seasons later this year. Those are pretty good matchups between the two networks. It's also a quantum leap forward for Showtime, which still lacks big audiences but not critical acclaim.

Set in England's early 16th century, The Tudors has a command performance, as it must, from Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a young and still very lithe Henry VIII.

"I was fed up with the fat, bearded monster," creator-writer Michael Hirst says in Showtime press materials. "My Henry is new. He's never been portrayed this way."

This Henry is very proactive in Sunday's first 15 minutes of The Tudors, which will have 10 weekly episodes. First he declares war on France, where his ambassador uncle has just been assassinated. Then he says, "Now, I can go play." This signals a leave-little-to-the-imagination bedroom romp between the king and Lady Elizabeth Blount (Ruta Gedmintas), who happens to be married.

Then again, so is Henry, to the plain but painstakingly sincere Queen Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy). He's abandoned her sexually after several still-births and the death of their only son after a mere month among the living. They do have a prepubescent daughter, though, who's promised in marriage to two different rulers during the first three episodes of The Tudors.

Also at the heart of all this intrigue is conniving Cardinal Wolsey, played with admirable but powerful restraint by Sam Neill. The cardinal lusts to be Pope, and has carnal desires as well. So far they have nothing to do with little boys.

Rhys Meyers previously earned favorable reviews in Woody Allen's Match Point and as the star of the 2005 CBS miniseries Elvis, which will be reprised on Showtime from 7 to 10 p.m. (central) on Saturday, March 31.

As Henry, his hair is shorn short and his athleticism knows few bounds, whether he's jousting, wrestling, playing an early form of tennis or bedding someone other than his wife. It's a very nice display all around from a still rising actor with one of filmdom's presumably brightest futures.

Henry is still an idealist in this early going, even if his own legacy is paramount to him. Cardinal Wolsey cleverly talks him into grand plans to become a visionary "architect of a new and modern world." Meanwhile, others have their own agendas, including the father of seductive, notorious Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer).

Anne is only a peripheral player in the opening three hours. Her much-chronicled relationship with Henry is yet to come, although he dreams in Episode 3 of chasing a teasing Anne in slo-mo before glimpsing her in the altogether. Actually, this seems like more of a nightmare to him, which it pretty much proved to be.

"Those eyes of yours are like dark hooks for the soul," Anne's scheming dad tells her in Episode 2.

Its scope and costuming make The Tudors an oft-sumptuous feast for the eyes. Unlike HBO's Rome, which ended last Sunday, almost everything looks many-splendored rather than down-and-dirty. Henry at heart is a dandy. Only later will he become a consummate dirty dealer, too.

His best scene in the early going is with wife Katherine, who's terrifically played by the aforementioned Maria Doyle Kennedy.

In Episode 3, she makes one last poignant plea to lure Henry back to her bedroom. It's a heartfelt, sincere outpouring from a spurned woman to the man she still loves. He responds by kissing her warmly/curtly on the forehead. Then, like a very vintage Tony Soprano, he's back in business with another conquest. Simultaneously, Cardinal Wolsey is getting a back-pounding massage from a topless masseuse.

The Tudors, which wisely will air after The Sopranos instead of against it, is a soap with nutrients, a saga with plenty of ga-ga. Coherent and compelling while also complex, it deserves a much wider audience than Showtime generally attracts.

For the network's legions of non-subscribers, this is the one that will be well worth your money. The Sopranos is nearing death, so long live this new kingdom.

Grade: A