{mosimage}The Tudors, Showtime’s new 10-part series chronicling a decade in the early reign of England’s King Henry VIII, is the rarely seen Before photo of a surprisingly sexy and vital Henry that nearly overturns the well-established After image of the obese, power-mad, Catholicism-crushing, wife-decapitating ruler we’ve seen in countless movies. To watch the slitheringly youthful Jonathan Rhys-Meyers cut a dashing, all-eyes-on-me Whitehall Palace figure in modish, physique-hugging threads is to be reminded of the smoldering Irish actor’s turns in the glam-pop flick Velvet Goldmine and even the 2005 TV movie Elvis — consider the distinctively loose-hipped stance Henry displays early on in the first episode. As royalists and rockists might agree, long live the King.

Naturally, there is careful calculation worthy of the proverbial palace corridors in spicing up a 500-year-old chunk of throne drama so that it has the dark pull and libertine frankness that pay-cable audiences expect. Just look at the name: If they’d called it Young Henry VIII, it would have conjured up the stuffiness of public television; call it The Tudors, though, and you evoke the family-business intrigue of The Sopranos. (Dynasty has been used already.) And if your lead character is a mistress-taking pleasure seeker who enjoys gallivanting with a posse of close male friends, doesn’t that have the hedonistic ring of a 16th-century Entourage? It may sound shrewd, but history bears out some of this narrative reimagining. Henry VII’s son was indeed an athletically trim, handsome and energetic ruler when he started out, less concerned with exerting control than conveying pride of England, introducing new blood to court and offsetting a battered nobility while, of course, enjoying his rambunctious privileges. He was much more likely to make decisions based on personal whims or a sense of mythical self rather than any forward-thinking political big picture. (Sound familiar, American subjects of the Crawford, Texas, emperor?)

In other words, there’s an appealing rawness of spirit in Henry’s immature sovereignness to explore, which definitely gives The Tudors a swift voyeuristic kick, if not necessarily a thoughtful Shakespearean heft. Even though it’s one-sixth of the king’s life, and divided into 10 hourlong episodes, this is English history with no time to waste on deep characterizations or soul-baring soliloquies. As mapped out by writer Michael Hirst (who wrote the 1998 film Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett as the queen), scenes are short, emotions are intense, what’s said is said (in the least flowery of vocabularies), and then action is taken. News travels between countries with a narrative swiftness that made me think Hirst had given BlackBerrys to everyone. There’s no leisure chat either. Even when Henry, a king historians generally agree was highly intelligent, is allowed a moment of philosophical exchange, telling his scholarly adviser Thomas More (Jeremy Northam) that he’s not only read More’s wishful Utopia but also Machiavelli’s tantalizingly instructive power manual The Prince, he concludes the discussion with the following book report on the latter: “It’s less … utopian.” Movin’ on!

From the start, in fact, The Tudors lays bare the legendary monarch’s twin tensions of leadership acumen and private desire in whiplash storytelling fashion: At a to-the-point council meeting, Henry hotly proposes war with France — an emotional response to his ambassador uncle being murdered by Gallic assassins, and one that threatens the diplomatic efforts favored by the powerful lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (Sam Neill) — and then happily informs his court, “Now I can go play.” Cut to a sweaty, multiple-position frolic with a married woman, then some vigorous racquet sport with his horndog mates.

European conflict is avoided when the oily Wolsey and the humanist More persuade a battle-impatient Henry to endorse a peace treaty with France’s equally youthful and equally arrogant ruler, Francis I. More is happy because he abhors war. Wolsey is happy because he needs the French cardinals on his side in his quest to become pope. And Henry is pissed off when he loses a shirtless wrestling match to the trash-talking Francis at the famously opulent treaty signing at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Unfortunately, his home life is increasingly beginning to seem less like a grown boy’s playground and more like a hothouse of growing and literal royal pains, from the treasonous skullduggery engendered by the crown-craving Duke of Buckingham (Steven Waddington) and the Duke of Norfolk (Henry Czerny), to the lack of a male heir after many years of marriage to Spanish King Ferdinand’s daughter Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), and eventually to the driven purpose that would eventually secure his legacy: the fight with the papacy over legitimately divorcing his wife, leading to the Protestant Reformation in England.

But wait, who’s that alabaster knockout with the sleepily divine gaze and sensually dismissive mouth making an entrance in Episode 3? The most casually sensational performance in the series, that’s who. Just when Rhys-Meyers’ rock-star petulance grows a little tiresome, Natalie Dormer presents a painterly exquisiteness and complexity in her portrayal of Anne Boleyn, who entrances the lovelorn Henry with her those-lips-those-eyes beauty into a hell-bent course for the break with Rome, Catherine, Spain, Wolsey and many others. (Which constitutes the rest of the season’s storyline, mainly.)

There’s a bewitching mysteriousness to Dormer’s intelligent portrait of Boleyn’s rise from object of affection to royal confidante to queen-in-waiting, which refuses to entirely endorse either the bald political machinations Hirst ascribes to her father (who creepily pimps out both Boleyn girls to further his plot to cripple Henry’s power) or the notion that she felt the same for the smitten Tudor ruler. With everyone’s motivations in this handsomely mounted but adrenaline-fueled series so on-the-surface, Dormer’s enigmatic, time-halting loveliness is a boon for The Tudors, and damn near worth losing your head over.

THE TUDORS | Showtime | Sundays, 10 p.m., beginning April 1

LA Weekly