England has had many more kings than queens, but the queens are often so much more interesting. In the past year we’ve gotten TV adaptations of the lives of the current monarch, Elizabeth II, in Netflix’s The Crown, and Victoria in her own PBS series (which first aired in the UK on ITV). But just as Elizabeth has eclipsed her great-great grandmother Victoria as England’s longest reigning monarch, so too does The Crown edge out Victoria in style and in scope. And yet, Victoria is still (for Anglophiles and those drawn to period dramas) an entertaining series that follows the early years of the young monarch.
Like The Crown, the setup of Victoria is simple: 18 year old Victoria (Jenna Coleman) takes power suddenly, and feels ill-prepared for its effects on her personal life. She attempts to establish her own court of allies and confidents away from the control of her mother, and in doing so becomes extremely close to her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell). And while rumors swirl about their relationship, Victoria is pressured to marry someone else, which leads her into the arms of her cousin Albert (Tom Hughes).
But whereas The Crown found its power and heightened drama in the smallest moments of Elizabeth’s day, Victoria glosses over the nuances of daily life in the palace, and instead spends most of its time alighting on various romantic entanglements. Though there is no evidence that Victoria and Lord Melbourne’s relationship was as much of an infatuation as Victoria portrays it, Coleman and Sewell have an easy chemistry that makes the compelling pairing a smoldering affair full of longing glances. Though there are some half-hearted attempts to introduce other competitors for Victoria’s heart before Albert, they are forgettable. Victoria is clear in what it wants us to think and when it wants us to think it, which takes some of the fun out of it — and this series should be fun, given all of the good looking people and the romantic entanglements that populate it.
Perhaps a better series comparison is Downton Abbey, which was another gorgeously produced show with a great cast, but one whose whirlwind pace was only suited to following shallow narratives instead of giving the time to dig deep into its character’s lives and motivations. Victoria has a handful of “downstairs” plots, but none ever get enough time to become particularly interesting, save for one Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson), a ladies maid who is misrepresenting her background to the household, but who nevertheless acts as a stable moral compass among the largely corrupt household staff.
But because nothing of real note occurs outside of Victoria’s personal relationships, Victoria feels quite slow, and without real stakes or consequences. The young queen muses about her hair, attempts to through her mother’s controlling companion out of court, and breaks up (and makes up) with Melbourne over and over. And though Coleman is feisty and likable in the role, and Sewell is particularly charming, Albert doesn’t come into his own until midway through the series, which just reinforces the series’ sometimes exceptionally slow pace and development.
Ultimately, it’s a big story told on a micro, intimate level. In that vein, Victoria’s tiny stature is referenced constantly and reinforced visually, but she constantly battles against the notion that her size should dictate how seriously she is taken. She’s impulsive and seems believably like a teenager, and yet, it can border on a petulance that makes one wonder if the queen really doesn’t have anything more to do than think about her crush. Still, if you come into the series knowing its focus is on a kind of royal dating game (and later, Victoria’s marriage to Albert and the birth of their first daughter), then it’s serene and enjoyable to watch unfold. It’s just the tale of a young woman finding her way and managing her personal life where, for better or worse, her being a queen often feels like an afterthought.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Victoria premieres Sunday, January 15th on PBS.