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Jonathan Rhys Meyers returns as Henry VIII in the steamy "The Tudors."

Have you noticed how obsessed television is with time travel this season? From "Heroes" and "Lost" to "New Amsterdam" and the dearly departed "Journeyman," we've had so many characters flashing back and flashing forward that it occasionally feels like we're watching a frenetic tennis match that leaves our necks sore from all the swiveling.

There are some of us who would find it refreshing to cease bouncing around and actually dwell in the past for a while. But programmers don't reward us with such opportunities all that often — rest in peace, "Rome" and "Deadwood" — so determined are they to return us to the contemporary courtroom skirmishes and murder scenes of prime time.

That's why it can be startling to see television awash in costume dramas as will be this weekend. Not only does Sunday bring the second season of "The Tudors" (9 p.m., Showtime), the lavish series about the exploits of King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), but PBS is presenting a worthwhile new adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" (9 p.m., Channels 6 and 9).

Meanwhile, the historical epic "John Adams" (9 p.m., HBO) continues its captivating seven-part run with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney shining in the lead roles.

On "The Tudors," we rewind all the way back to 1532 London to rejoin Henry in his relentless, all-consuming quest for absolute power. Anyone who got hooked on this addictive series last season knows it plays loose with the facts in a presentation that often yields more style than substance. Oh, but what style.


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This is history as erotic soap opera, complete with heavy panting and cable-ready flashes of nudity. Rhys Meyers plays King Hank not as a slovenly glutton who chomps on turkey legs, but as a lean, vital and petulant playboy with a voracious appetite for the ladies.

The Season 2 version of Henry is darker and more menacing. In order to ditch his first wife, Katherine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), and scandalously take up with the seductive young hottie Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), he's willing to break with the Catholic Church, thumb his nose at tradition and propel England into utter turmoil. What a royal pain he is.

These actors make up as formidable a trio as you'll find on television. All sly and slitherly and prone to volcanic outbursts, Rhys Meyers commands the screen just like a egomaniacal ruler should. Meanwhile, Kennedy excels as the estranged wife fiercely determined to maintain a grip on the throne — and her jewels. As for the scheming, pouty-lipped Dormer, well, you just can't take your eyes off her.

The solid acting (veteran Peter O' Toole is also notable in a small role as Pope Paul III) helps to make up for some of the starchy dialogue and paucity of character development in "The Tudors." All the overheated carnal gymnastics don't hurt either — if you're into that sort of thing. Just when you think the show can't get any steamier, creator Michael Hirst tells TV Guide that fans can look forward to a future scene with Anne and Henry that will be the "hottest, sexiest, most passionately violent scene ever seen in a TV show."

So is that what they mean by the declaration, "It's good to be king"?

Judging from the opening moments of "Sense and Sensibility," you'd think this "Masterpiece" production is determined to keep up with "The Tudors." Fade into: Two intertwined bodies passionately writhing in front of a blazing fire. Whoa, Jane Austen goes for an R-rating!

But it turns out to be a just a little tease and the story soon reverts to the deliberate pace and genteel demeanor for which Austen is known.

Hattie Morahan and Marianne Dashwood star as Elinor and Marianne, the very different English sisters who take opposite approaches in their pursuit of love. One is tempered and pragmatic, the other free-spirited and full of youthful passion.

The actresses have a nice on-screen chemistry and there is a lot to like about "Sense and Sensibility," including some jaw-dropping cinematography. On the other hand, it gets pokey at times, taking two nights to accomplish what director Ang Lee, along with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, did in 135 minutes in 1995.

"Sense and Sensibility," which concludes on April 6, brings to a close PBS' Austen-o-rama that kicked off in mid-January. But somehow, I don't think we've seen the end of her.

CHANNEL SURFING: "Prison Break" is proof that a show can totally jump the tracks and veer off into eye-rolling ridiculousness and still get a pass. Fox announced this week that the show will be back next season. Mercifully not returning, however, is "Jezebel James," the Fox sitcom from "Gilmore Girls" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. It has been axed after only three lowly rated episodes. "... Yet another show returns from the writers-strike freeze this weekend when "Cold Case" re-launches its season with a fresh episode on Sunday (8:58 p.m., CBS). "... Also returning to the airwaves is Tracey Ullman, zany comedian and impersonator extraordinaire. "Tracey Ulmman's State of the Union" (10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime) is a half-hour sketch-comedy series that premieres immediately following "The Tudors."

Reach Chuck Barney at 925-952-2685 or cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Also check out his blog at www.ibabuzz.com/tvfreak.

TV PREMIERES

n WHAT: "The Tudors"

n WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday

n WHERE: Showtime

n WHAT: "Sense and Sensibility"

n WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday

n WHERE: Channels 6 and 9