The fourth season will be the last for “The Tudors,” which — like King Henry VIII — is limping into its later years. If this lusty costume drama sought to class up earlier chapters with big-name actors (Sam Neill, Peter O’Toole, Max von Sydow) and international intrigue, the closing run seems content to focus on bodice-ripping and little else — a bit like a CW drama, only with prettier clothes. The real flaw, though, resides in Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who — while dashing enough as the young king — lacks the gravitas to pull off the mature decadent one.
As the season begins, Henry is roughly 30 years into his reign, and married to the teenage Katherine Howard (Tamzin Merchant), whose sexual appetites have put a bounce in his step that unsettles his advisors. Unfortunately, the new queen has about as much of a past as one can amass at 17, and the king’s groom Thomas (Torrance Coombs) can barely hide his carnal lust for her. One needn’t be a genius or historian to surmise that this itch can only end in the opening of a medieval can of whoop-ass on somebody.
Henry, meanwhile, chafes at the fact that he lacks a strong right hand to help shoulder his regal burden, having shed most of his previous confidantes. Yet while those in the court roll their eyes, they’re understandably afraid to speak out.
What’s really missing are the kind of big conflicts and geopolitics — the king’s war with the Vatican, say — that gave “The Tudors” what little heft it possessed. Lacking that, the focus falls more squarely on Rhys Meyers, who isn’t convincing enough in either appearance or bearing.
At its best, the show sought to be TV for English-lit majors, whereas the first half of season four looks meant to appease those who would rather not be caught watching Cinemax. Budgetary concerns might have played a part, leaving a show that feels smaller and more claustrophobic.
Joely Richardson will join the series after the five previewed episodes for the stretch run — playing Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr — so fans can always hope for the best. “The Tudors” certainly served a purpose for Showtime as the channel forged into original series — distinctive as it is in period and texture — but like King Henry, its best days appear to be behind it. Grease up the guillotine.