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PBS' 'Victoria' Takes a Majestic Look at an Exalted Monarch
January 15, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

First Queen Victoria lost her spot as the longest-reigning British monarch to Queen Elizabeth II. Now the same Elizabeth may be crowding into Victoria’s television spotlight.

PBS’s long-awaited series Victoria premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings)– just a few weeks after Netflix started drawing rave reviews for The Crown, the series about the ascension of Elizabeth II.

Happily, television is unlike the British throne in that while there can only be one queen, there is room for more than one good television show.

Anyone who likes The Crown, or doesn’t, should tune in Victoria, because it’s stylish, charming and thoroughly engaging.

In the broadest sense, it continues the PBS tradition of bringing lavish English period drama to the television sets of the Colonies.

Jenna Coleman plays Victoria, and while she’s 12 years older than the diminutive 18-year-old who assumed the British throne in 1837, that never feels like an issue.

Coleman captures the spirit of Victoria: serious but impulsive, mischievous but determined, willful but also willing to learn.

We want her to succeed despite the fact she makes some mistakes and inflicts some unintended cruelties. Whatever her flaws, we quickly realize we’d rather have her in that chair than the people who seek to wield power through her, including palace rivals, calculating “advisors” and, yes, her mother.

Her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming, left), seriously skewed Victoria’s childhood by raising her, for all practical purposes, in a bubble.

Afraid the child would catch some awful 19th-century disease, the Duchess kept her away from almost any contact with the outside world. Right up until she ascended to the throne, Victoria slept every night on a cot in her mother’s bedroom.

This was partly maternal concern and partly a protective strategy. It had been clear for some time that through a series of bad behavior and bad decisions, the royal line was without a legitimate male heir and the throne would fall to the Duchess’s daughter.

The Duchess saw this as her own chance to become more powerful and important because she had made this daughter wholly reliant on her.

Imagine her surprise, then, when King William IV died, and Victoria ascended to the throne with the announcement that she would be making her own decisions, thank you very much.

Kids today.

The first series of Victoria, which will run eight episodes including a two-hour opening night, covers the first three years of Victoria’s reign, starting with her coronation and running up to the point when she fell in love with her first cousin Prince Albert.

He would become the love of her life, and they had nine children while remaining married until his early death two decades later.

That’s business for future series, however. In the first, Victoria must wrench herself free from her mother’s bubble and get slapped in the face, hard, by the reality of what a queen was expected to know and do.

Toward this end, she turns to Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell, right, in a far different role than he plays in Man in the High Castle). He’s understanding and loyal without being a lap dog, perhaps knowing that Victoria already has one of those.

He guides her and also helps protect her while giving her a crash course in regal responsibilities.

She, in turns, develops a mad crush on him, despite the fact he’s considerably older. Happily, for her, he gracefully deflects her, understanding that her social and romantic development has been stunted by her mother.

At the same time palace intrigue is swirling everywhere, and while we know she will survive it, the byplay creates enough interesting subplots, so Victoria isn’t just a coming-of-age tale.

It also challenges the long-standing popular image of Victoria as rather prim, humorless and prudish. While she isn’t the class clown, she comes across as someone who quite enjoys being alive.

PBS’s hope, of course, is that everyone who used to watch Downton Abbey on winter Sunday nights will transfer their affection to Victoria.

That’s probably not likely. Victoria is a much different kind of show, historical biography rather than melodrama, so it can’t create the kind of characters who made Downton so endearing.

Victoria just engages viewers in a different way, and anyone who enjoyed Downton, or enjoys The Crown, will find a new set of pleasures here.

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Daphne Macklin
So far Victoria is interesting enough, but I think the viewership that should be considered are the Game of Thrones folks rather than the Downton Abbey crowd. Besides Masterpiece made its bones on dramas based on British royalty. This one should be no different.
Jan 16, 2017   |  Reply
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