Why on Earth do I love Showtime's The Tudors so much, anyway? On the surface, this show has all the earmarks of the guiltiest of guilty pleasures: over-the-top costumes, fiery political intrigue, loads of violence, and plenty of, um, bodice-ripping. And I can't get enough of it. Perhaps it's because the steamy historical soap is unique, in that it has the odd ability to entertain the hell out of me even while it takes ridiculous, impossible liberties with history, characterization, and plot. Usually I get all bent out of shape when a movie or TV show portrays an event or people in ways that just could not have happened. Take this summer's craptastic The Other Boleyn Girl, for instance, a movie I was highly anticipating because of its awesome, book-crack literary version by Phillippa Gregory. Forget the terrible casting of Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn (they'd have been better off with a blonde, or a man, in the role, so awful and un-Anne was she), the film itself had me wanting my money back ten minutes in because of the sheer idiocy and impossibility of what was playing out on screen.

The Tudors has taken similar liberties, what with the odd suicide of Cardinal Wolsey in the first season (the real Cardinal was stripped of his title and position by Henry, accused of treason, and died of illness on the way to his trial), and the even stranger choice on the writers' part to combine Henry VII's two sisters, Princess Margaret and Princess Mary, into a single amalgamation of a princess who marries the King of Portugal (not even close), murders him (whaaaa?), marries the King's Number One, Charles Brandon (okay, the real Princess Mary did indeed do this), and promptly die of some sort of consumptive illness without bearing any children (um, no). I bring up this strange storyline because it seriously limits the future options of the writers, if they choose--and the network allows them--to continue this show into The Tudors: The Next Generation. In real life, Henry's sister Margaret bore the child who would bear the child who would become Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry's sister Mary bore the child who would bear the child who would become Jane Grey. Henry's own daughters Mary and Elizabeth went through crazy drama with these chicks, and eventually had them executed in succession to secure their own thrones--sent their own cousins to the chopping block! So, randomly killing off Princess Margaret/Mary last season was all kinds of confusing; why erase future ready-made explosive storylines, writers? I'm still waiting for the day when TV and film producers realize that Tudor history is one of those time periods where reality actually is as good as, and infinitely better than, anything the writers could ever make up.

Nevertheless, where usually I'd be all in a snit and not able to watch the show at all due the abovementioned ridiculousness, The Tudors grabbed me, albeit reluctantly, from the get-go, mostly due to its incredibly strong performances. This past season saw Natalie Dormer rise above her previous shrewd, sexually-charged temptress role to become a devoted mother, a queen precariously clinging to her shaky position, a wife watching her husband's desire for her evaporate as she miscarries son after son, and a woman on trial, her own life and the lives of her family and closest friends in danger. Dormer's performance as the condemned Anne, watching her brother and her best friends be put to death, and waiting for the release of her own beheading, was easily Emmy-worthy, and I was disappointed to see her not included among the Golden Globe nominees. I challenge anyone to watch the scene where George Boleyn is beheaded beneath Anne's tower window and not be moved. Conversely, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers performance as the slowly unraveling, hot-tempered, bordering-on-psychotic Henry VII kept even the duller episodes of the season feeling super-charged. The man is like a human lightning bolt; one flash of those wild eyes, and you can't look away from the TV. His Globe nomination was well-deserved and it'd be criminal not to recognize him at the Emmys as well. Maria Doyle Kennedy, as the beleaguered, cast-aside Katherine of Aragon, represented the only real sanity and dignity present in the entire cast of characters, while Sarah Bolger as the newly illegitimate Princess Mary showed chilling shades of the driven, power-obsessed, vengeful woman Bloody Mary will soon become.

And then there's the sex. Seriously, how could anyone not love this show? The actors are all impossibly good-looking, and the characters get it on explicitly. A lot. With a lot of different people. Thank the TV gods this is a Showtime series, and there's no wimping out on the sex scenes. My big gripe is that we haven't seen nearly enough of the delicious Henry Cavill this season, who plays Henry VII's best friend and confidant, Charles Brandon. Last season we had him doinking Gabrielle Anwar's Princess Margaret/Mary on every possible surface, on land and at sea, and this season we barely saw him shirtless once. Get on that, writers. You're wasting a precious natural resource.

The upcoming third season, due to begin in "early 2009"--April is rumored--promises even more royal drama, although I will sorely miss the anchoring, excellent presence of Natalie Dormer. Henry's already shacked up with wispy little Jane Seymour, and if you don't already know what happens to her, don't do any Wikipedia-ing in the ensuing months. I'll reserve judgment on what appears to be the shameless stunt-casting of the singer Joss Stone as Anne of Cleves. Best of all, we get to see Henry get fat and gross. Really fat and gross. Rhys-Meyers in a fat suit should be more entertaining than the past two seasons combined.

Guilty pleasure? Maybe. But I'm beginning to feel less guilt and more pleasure watching this version of history go down.

For more information on The Tudors and its upcoming viewing schedule, visit the Showtime website at www.sho.com/site/tudors. Look for new episodes in early 2009.

Story by Meghan McCracken

Starpulse contributing writer