OH, HENRY! Jonathan Rhys Meyers, signed through Season 3, makes a slim ’n’ sexy Henry VIII in Showtime’s “The Tudors.” (Jonathan Hession / Showtime)

NEW YORK -- "The Tudors," the racy, richly appointed series that returns to Showtime on Sunday for its second season, has never purported to be obsessed with authenticity.

But creator and executive producer Michael Hirst admitted he took substantial liberties with a line he penned for a scene in the upcoming 10-episode arc, in which a frustrated Anne Boleyn scolds King Henry XIII for maintaining ties with his wife, Queen Katherine.
"The Tudors": An article in Friday's Calendar section about the Showtime series "The Tudors" referred to a scene in which Anne Boleyn scolds King Henry XIII. She scolds King Henry VIII. —

"You can't have three people in a marriage," the king's mistress beseeches him.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps it's because Princess Diana of Wales made a similar remark about her own troubled marriage in more recent times.

"I was very naughty," Hirst said. "I had Anne Boleyn say it because it was an extraordinarily similar situation. I like the fact that I can put in these contemporary references, just to point out that things don't change that much."

For Showtime, the lavish drama's resonance with a 21st century audience has been at the center of its appeal. For all of its ornate costumes and elaborate court customs, the show's sensibilities -- and sexual obsessions -- feel remarkably current day.

"There's a romantic nature to the period and the clothes and the glamour that's historical," said Robert Greenblatt, Showtime's entertainment president. "But we've also positioned it in a way that feels very modern.. . . . We unabashedly call this a soap."

This season's pathos may be compounded by the fact that many American viewers are apparently unaware of Boleyn's dark fate, something the network discovered when it held focus groups to test the series' marketing campaign.

"They're not hooked into every detail, which is a good thing for us, because we can tell the story the way we need to tell it and much of it is fresh to people," Greenblatt said.

For the most part, the story line hews to historical record. When "The Tudors" resumes, Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is still locked in a tense conflict with the Catholic Church over his demand for an annulment so he can marry the bewitching Boleyn, played by Natalie Dormer. The ensuing power struggle leads to Henry's break with the church and the English Reformation, only to have the king order his new queen beheaded after she fails to produce a male heir.

This season, veteran Irish actor Peter O'Toole joined the cast as Pope Paul III, who excommunicates Henry after he marries Anne without the church's permission.

In fact, it was Pope Clement VII, who preceded Paul, who rejected Henry's request for an annulment. (Hirst sped up the succession to create a new role for O'Toole.)

The longtime actor said he wasn't bothered that the series deviates from history.

"Give me a sense of antiquity, by all means," O'Toole said. "Give me a whiff of the period. But I worked with too many boring designers and boring directors who say, 'But we didn't have horseshoes in those days.' Come on! As long as you don't walk around in a pair of Bermuda shorts."

Rhys Meyers, whose Henry is far more lithe than the iconic images of the rotund king, said, "You have to make Henry for an audience today, otherwise they're going to be bored."

Still, unlike other actors who have assumed the role, "I have to work harder internally, because I'm not 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, where you immediately go, 'Henry!' " he noted. "I have to be a king inside out."

Channeling the intensity of a young royal coming into his own made the second season more taxing than the first, said the 30-year-old actor.