TV: 'The Tudors' Returns

Here's a fun exercise: watch an episode of Showtime's "The Tudors," then run and look at a reasonably accurate painting of King Henry VIII. The monarch of the House of Tudor was no Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In fact, if one were to create a Historical Hunk of the Day calendar, the real Henry VIII would make a terrific Feb. 30. But that, naturally, is the fun of a show like "The Tudors," which premieres its second season this Sunday. It takes all the decadence and treachery of an ancient dynasty and gussies it up with pretty people wearing gorgeous costumes that simply refuse to stay on.

Season two picks up in an auspicious place, King Henry's "great matter," as it's called in history books. He's assuming control of the church so he can ditch his adoring queen, Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), for the cuter, more fertile Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer). Henry is obsessively focused on producing a male heir, and as anyone who is up on his history knows, he held a lengthy casting process for the privilege of playing incubator. It's the knowledge of this history, specifically as it relates to Anne's demise, that makes the new season more engaging. The flame and fizzle of their romance is the most intriguing part of the Henry VIII saga, and now that Henry is openly involved with her, the story has new momentum. The criticism that season one telescoped history too much was misplaced: the issue is not that events were conflated, but rather that they weren't conflated enough.

For non-history-buffs, there's enough ornate costumes and interiors to put the French to shame. The show's exterior shots are hit-or-miss: some lack polish, others are downright chintzy, but they immerse the viewer in 16th-century England. The performances are mostly solid. Meyers effectively conveys Henry's violent mood swings, while Dormer strikes the right balance of treachery and genuine affection.

Still, for all its geysers of blood and horizontal aerobics, "The Tudors" has never quite been able to match the deftness of HBO's "Rome." Its first season occasionally felt rudderless. Also, "The Tudors" tends to feel tawdry and prurient, while "Rome" managed to seem high-minded yet unflinching, which explained the occasional bacchanalia. But "Rome" is a distant memory: HBO no longer wanted to foot its enormous production cost, so for hot-and-heavy dynastic action, "The Tudors" has succeeded to the throne. And now that the action has begun in earnest, maybe it deserves to rule.