Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sampling Soaps: The Tudors and Downton Abbey

I finally had a chance to binge-watch The Tudors. I remember seeing the first episode on Showtime back in 2007, but nothing about it compelled me to tune in the following week. If only someone had told me that Michael Hirst was, by his own admission, writing a soap opera and not a historical narrative, I probably would have pushed past the ponderous pilot. (Oh, Lord: "pushed past the ponderous pilot." I've rewatched so much Newhart recently, I'm starting to talk in alliteration, like Michael Harris -- although I suppose he would have "pushed past the pale pageantry of the ponderous pilot.")

As soaps go, The Tudors isn't a bad one: it's almost always watchable even when it isn't very good. That said, I was never convinced that Hirst was writing the show he thought he was writing; in the interviews I've read, he describes characters much more rounded than the ones we see on the screen. At one point, after Henry VIII has rejected papal supremacy and initiated the English Reformation simply so he can marry Anne Boleyn, his chief minister Thomas Cromwell describes him as, in fact, "a true Catholic, except this one thing: he would have neither Pope, nor Luther, nor any other man set above him" -- and although that's the character's observation, it's pretty much how we see Henry as well: as a man of no real convictions, a narcissist who'll rewrite, ignore or subvert any laws of church or state to meet his needs. As for Anne Boleyn, Hirst was apparently struck when critics called her a "manipulative bitch," because he intended something more fully realized, but it's hard to see how, since from the moment she appears on the scene, pimped out by her bastard of a father, she has her eyes firmly set on the crown. (Hirst gives her a few sympathetic scenes right before she gets axed, but that's Soap Writing 101, and we see right through it -- it humanizes her, but it certainly doesn't "redeem" her.)

Probably because Henry and Anne come off like blustering supervillains -- the Megalomaniac and the Minx -- our sympathies fall to the more devout and restrained characters: Maria Doyle Kennedy's Catherine of Aragon and Jeremy Northam's Sir Thomas More. They're written like saints (as opposed to the clergy, who are written like thugs), and at times, their faces are lit as if they're touched by God. In soap terms, they're the "good guys" and Henry and Anne are the "bad guys" (you spend most of Season 2 waiting for Anne to get her comeuppance, and then you spend Season 3 waiting for Cromwell to get his). The first season is undermined by too much faux political intrigue, the second season by a surfeit of failed or imagined assassinations. Sometime around the middle of Season 2, both Jonathan Rhys Meyer (as Henry) and Natalie Dormer (as Anne), whose performances to that point have been beyond reproach, start to badly overact, and you sense they're as frustrated with the series' lack of forward motion as we are, and maybe a bit over all the shouting matches and bodice ripping. (Dormer seems relieved when she finally gets to her execution scene.)

And then something unexpected happens to The Tudors as it lurches into Season 3: it gets much better. For a magical four episodes, the story-telling becomes cogent. The Pilgrimage of Grace is admirably dramatized in both bold and short strokes (Gerard McSorley cuts a striking and sympathetic figure as Robert Aske; the Pilgrimage also gives Henry Cavill's Charles Brandon something to do, after two seasons of bed-hopping), and back at court, Jane Seymour (as portrayed by a warm and underrated Annabelle Wallis) seems to have a calming influence not only on Henry but on Hirst as well. (Rhys Meyer's performance at her deathbed is nothing short of magnificent.) For the first four episodes of Season 3, The Tudors attains an equilibrium rare for the series -- and then it all goes to pot. But for a while, The Tudors is rewarding entertainment. Watching it was a nice way to start the year.

Another British period soap returned to the air while I was binging The Tudors: it was Downton Abbey -- and after four episodes, I really don't know if I'll make it to the end of the season, let alone the end of the series. A lot of soaps suffer because as the characters grow, they get away from what made you love them in the first place; Julian Fellowes is writing the first soap I've ever seen where the characters don't evolve at all. Lord Grantham, Mary, Edith, Thomas, Carson, that ghastly kitchen quadrangle -- it's like they're all stuck in time, like characters in a bad sitcom. Violet is still sniping at Isobel, Thomas at Bates, Mary at Edith; every year, Fellowes resets the relationships to zero -- he seems terrified to let them develop. ("What will Downton Abbey become if the same characters can't keep hurling zingers at each other?" The answer: fresher.) And the few characters who have evolved -- like Tom Branson -- have been left worse off than when Fellowes found them. And that dialogue! This week, Mary got handed her first marriage proposal since her husband's death. I'd like to say that her suitor basically made the pitch "He's dead and I'm alive," but he didn't say something like that -- that's exactly what he said: "He's dead and I'm alive." There were a half-dozen moments like that on Downton this week -- lines when I didn't know whether to be more stunned that someone wrote them, or sorry that someone had to say them. Anna justified keeping her rape from her husband with this nugget: "Better a broken heart than a broken neck." Thomas told off Edna with "You're a manipulative little witch, and if your schemes have come to nothing, I'm delighted." That's the kind of line Jane Wyman would have skewered Ana-Alicia with on Falcon Crest.

And let's talk about Tom Branson for a moment, shall we? Whatever happened to that proud, opinionated, wickedly charming chauffeur? Does he really have to be reduced to a Mopey Minnie who sits around Downton Abbey feeling sorry for himself? If we're going to have suffer through years of this fish-out-of-water nonsense, couldn't he at least show the family a little of the old Tom: some fire in his belly, a hint of his old revolutionary streak, a trace of anger or self-righteousness or spirit that might actually impress them? Does a man with this much to offer really have to spend his time feeling he's not good enough for the gargoyles and Gorgons of Downton Abbey? Well, of course he does. Julian Fellowes is in love with the Granthams. He loves them so much he can't write for them anymore.

The self-pitying Tom doesn't play to any of Allen Leech's strengths; I was reminded watching him in his short stint on The Tudors -- where he comes roaring on the screen with a sexy swagger -- how charismatic he can be. I mean, his character on The Tudors makes no sense; he's introduced as Francis Dereham, an old acquaintance of Queen Catherine, and within moments, he's boasting to the court of their indiscretions, like he thinks they're all going to say "way to go, man," pat him on the back, and buy him a brewski. (They don't: they behead him.) But Leech has so much charm even playing a rotter (and a demented rotter at that) that you're happy to go along for the ride. Season 4 of The Tudors is full of characters who don't seem to have any reason for their actions, but they're so full of life -- like the characters in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette -- that while they're on the screen (not just Leech, but Tamzin Merchant's Catherine Howard and Torrance Coomb's Thomas Culpepper), you find yourself swept up in their kinky self-absorption. I think I'd choose any of them over the calcified clucks on Downton Abbey.

One last thought about The Tudors. You're aware all through the series that it's messing with history for the sake of drama, but you don't really care. Until Season 4. And that's when they try to tell us that Thomas Culpepper, the Queen's lover, was executed and his head put on public display, and that's when you just have to cry foul, because any real TV viewer knows that Thomas Culpepper died in Pusan, in shallow water. I mean, you can mess with history all you want, but don't try messing with Season 3 of Dawson's Creek:

Grams: You know, when I was just a few years older than you I was working at Brunswick Naval Hospital and I met a boy who had the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. He was leaving for Pusan in the morning but we had an entire glorious day on the beach. And at the end of that day, he leaned in close to me and whispered, "Will you wait for me?"
Andie: So what did you do?
Grams: I froze. I knew if I leaned just two inches closer the world as I knew it would be changed forever.
Pacey: So you did nothing? You didn't kiss him, you didn't try to speak to him, you just did nothing?
Grams: Nothing.
Jack: Did you ever wonder what your life might have been like if you had kissed him?
Grams: That is just the point. I don't have to wonder. The very next day, I got my best friend Sally to cover the shift for me. And after seven turbulent hours in the cargo hold of a C130, I arrived in San Diego, went straight to the dock, and in front of the entire crew of the USS Missouri, I kissed him.
Jen: That's funny, I had no idea Gramps was in the Korean war.
Grams: He wasn't. Thomas Culpepper, the boy with the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen, died in Pusan, in shallow water, before he ever made it off the boat. And two years later, I married your grandfather. So I’ve had 46 wonderful years with one man, and one perfect kiss with another, and I have no regrets. I wonder how many of you will be able to say that about your lives?

Now that I think about it, Grams' gentle recollection of her "one perfect kiss" with Thomas Culpepper in the Season 3 finale of Dawson's Creek is more affecting and effective than any of the stultifying speeches in the whole of The Tudors. Sometimes on a good soap, people don't need to raise their voices or bare their tits to get your attention.

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