When "The Tudors" debuts this Sunday night at 10 p.m. ET, Showtime aims, officially, to topple HBO as Emmy's cable king.
Think of Showtime's sexy re-imagining of Henry VIII as possible awards kin to HBO's drama about that monarch's daughter that swept the Emmys last year — "Elizabeth I" — winning best miniseries and best actress (Helen Mirren). It's not as artistically pretentious as "Elizabeth I," but "The Tudors" still has literary panache (it's penned by Michael Hirst, who wrote the 1998 film "Elizabeth," which earned Cate Blanchett an Oscar nom, as well as the upcoming sequel "The Golden Age"), it's a lot more fun and lively and it's landing on TV smack-dab at peak time in the Emmy campaign season. DVDs of six episodes are also landing smack-dab on the doorsteps of Emmy voters right now, given a royal presentation in a handsomely designed box complete with a 60-page color book about the series and — here's the crowning touch — copies of handwritten love letters between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
No wonder. Behind its marketing is Showtime VP Richard Licata, formerly one of HBO's prime Emmy strategists. Since switching jobs, he's pulled off kudos miracles at the rival pay channel, including nabbing 7 surprise Emmy noms for "Huff" two years ago. Now Licata's got many more tempting Emmy toys with which to play — and all just the kind of edgy programming that once seemed to belong to HBO alone: "Weeds" (about a sympathetic, pot-selling suburban momma), "Dexter" (a nice police forensics official who moonlights as a serial killer), "Brotherhood" (two siblings on either side of the law) — PLUS "The Tudors," which is produced in a way that, if successful, will continue as an open-ended TV series. So, therefore, it competes at this Emmy derby in the drama series categories, not TV movies/minis.
Meantime, HBO's longtime Emmy-arm-twister "The Sopranos" soon will be sleeping with the TV fishes, following the recent exit of "Sex and the City." Newer series "Big Love," "Deadwood" and "The Wire" haven't caught on so well with TV academy voters.
USA Today's Robert Bianco says of the new Showtime entry: "'The Tudors' can offer many a royal pleasure, starting with Jonathan Rhys Meyers' lusty performance, but including a mostly excellent supporting cast, high-class production values and an entertaining script from writer/producer Michael Hirst (the movie 'Elizabeth')."
And Newsday's Diane Werts writes: "Virile star Jonathan Rhys Meyers ages down eminent monarch Henry VIII to tempt TV's younger demographics. No longer the rotund old church-wrecking serial groom of the official-portrait image, he's now a hunk called Harry, a studly hard-bod hothead. Showtime is going for contemporary gusto."