Henry VIII, it turns out, wasn't always a bloated, misogynistic pig. In fact, in his 20s and 30s, he was handsome, athletic, ambitious, a bit of a clothes horse. Costume designer Joan Bergin calls him "the Mick Jagger of his day," and Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays him as a stud in velvet breeches. But Rhys Meyers' small stature and intense lisping undercuts the macho posturing of young Henry Tudor (who evidently made political decisions based on the outcomes of jousting and arm-wrestling contests).
You'll probably get caught up in all The Tudors' scheming and backstabbing, even if you don't know your Duke of Norfolk from your Marquess of Dorset -- but you'll appreciate it even more if you do some studying beforehand. The Season One teleplays were written by Michael Hirst, who scripted both of Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth movies, so he knows his Tudor history. But he may know too much: You could play a drinking game based on every time two Renaissance-y chaps stroll down a corridor with one asking, "Your Grace, have you heard whether Lord Salisbury's emissary to the Spanish court has returned with news of the treaty?" Uncharacterized characters pop up in unexplained plot tangents all the time.
Still, fans of Renaissance history will enjoy what's dramatized: So that's what the Field of the Cloth of Gold (a kind of English-French bucolic peace party in 1520) may have looked like. Sequences with emotional intensity outweigh the historical inaccuracies. An accidental and humiliating brush with death (and his bastard son's exposure to "the sweating sickness") help explain Henry's obsession with begetting an heir. Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) is great at conveying the wheedling and false subservience of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's chief advisor. And English majors will appreciate the end of Episode Six, which juxtaposes a Sir Thomas Wyatt poem about coquettish Anne Boleyn ("They flee from me") with political scheming by Wolsey's enemies, nicely enmeshing the sexual and the political. Even in the 16th century, sex and intrigue made for good ratings.