Young queens – think of them as a way to get your mind off old presidents. “Victoria,” premiering Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece,” stars Jenna Coleman as the teenager who in 1837 became England’s queen for the next six decades. It joins Netflix’s Queen Elizabeth II drama “The Crown” as yet another escape into the opulent, occasionally melancholy history of British royalty.
“Victoria,” created and written by Daisy Goodwin, will almost certainly please public television’s core audience, who are happiest when hoofs clop, gravel crunches and maids curtsy. It’s an adequate way to ward off the chill of winter’s remaining Sunday nights, but it’s not much more than that. Predictable to the bone – and at times maddeningly redundant – “Victoria” too often feels like a period drama about the making of a period drama, rather than a deep, authentic breath of rarefied air.
To be honest, the excellence of “The Crown” (which won two Golden Globes this week, including best actress for its star, Claire Foy) pretty much steals most of “Victoria’s” thunder, while making its weaknesses more apparent. (And to be fair, “The Crown” cost approximately a gazillion more dollars to make.)
Goodwin delays giving Victoria much of a personality for several episodes, perhaps because the queen herself was such a blank slate at 18. The series opens on the morning she learns that the time has come for her to ascend the throne (she’d been preparing for it most of her young life) and spoiled Victoria impetuously sets about ignoring the advice of her stressed-out mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming) and her scheming adviser, Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys). “You have my mother in your pocket, but you will never, ever have me,” Victoria spits at Sir John at one point.
The young queen immediately warms to the country’s prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), who carefully teaches and advises Victoria on all the things she doesn’t know. Not only does she depend on him, she develops a serious crush on him – as does the viewer, because Sewell is so much more interesting than anyone in the palace.
The task of pairing Victoria with the perfect spouse takes up the bulk of the first three episodes. Although Alexander, the future Russian czar, piques her interest early on, two of Victoria’s first cousins, Albert (Tom Hughes) and Ernest (David Oakes) are brought in to try their luck. Though he feigns disinterest, Albert nevertheless falls for Victoria and she falls for him – and who wouldn’t, with his floppy snowboarder hair, hipster mustache and brooding silences?
By the time that deal is sealed, one realizes there’s not much else going on. Little squabbles and national crises rise up (cue the angry Chartist mob) and in due course waft away. Goodwin also chooses to set at least half of “Victoria” downstairs with the servants, where animosities and working-class travails play out like pages from a script that “Downton Abbey” discarded. The series is clearly tasked, at least in the States, with filling the void “Downton” left behind.
In fact, the more you watch of it, the more cold and calculating “Victoria” seems, as if was made for moving PBS tote bags rather than moving hearts.
“Victoria” (two hours) premieres on “Masterpiece,” Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. Continues weekly through Feb. 19 and concludes on March 5.