January 16, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Victoria”


VICTORIA:  Sunday 9PM on PBS – In the Queue

Female British monarchs are certainly having a television moment, with Elizabeth I a regular character on CW’s soon-to-return Reign, her current namesake at the center of Netflix’s The Crown, and now the PBS/ITV VICTORIA.  The newest arrival is far classier than CW’s YA soap, but it doesn’t compare to the Netflix effort in spectacle or, more importantly, in its writing.

At least in its initial 2 hours, the characterization of the 18-year-old Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is opposite to The Crown‘s Elizabeth II, the 19th-century queen painted as headstrong to the point of foolishness rather than self-possessed even when most insecure.  There’s historical basis for that point of view, but the script by series creator Daisy Goodwin (a far more experienced producer than writer) is overly blunt, with little shading for any of the depicted parties.  Within the first two minutes of the premiere, Victoria is refusing help walking down a flight of stairs, insisting that she can do it herself, and that nail is hammered into the dialogue over and over.

The decision to begin the story at the point where Victoria learned of the death of her uncle the King and her succession to the throne is also a hindrance, because it leaves out some of the background about Victoria’s troubled relationship with her mother the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming) and the Duchess’s confidante and presumed consort Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), at first making Victoria seem like a brat, and then overcompensating by turning Sir John into a B-movie villain who’s ready to have Victoria declared insane so that her mother can be declared Regent.  (Some of the backstory was covered in the Emily Blunt film The Young Victoria, all of 9 years ago.)  An intriguing overlap between Victoria and The Crown is that just as King Edward’s abdication cast a shadow over Elizabeth’s reign, the descent into madness by Victoria’s grandfather King George puts her sanity under a microscope, but Goodwin doesn’t use that as more than a pretext for Victoria’s enemies.  A true-life incident like Victoria’s spreading of gossip that Sir John had gotten a lady of the court with child, when actually the woman was suffering from a fatal tumor, is made even more melodramatic than it needed to be by intercutting Victoria’s coronation with the examination of the woman in question to see if she was pregnant or still a virgin, a counterpoint director Tom Vaughn can’t avoid making awkward.

There are also shoehorned storylines about the downstairs of the castle that seem to be aiming for a Downton Abbey vibe, including accounts of some below-stairs corruption (the Queen’s used gloves were sold at market, and the choice between tallow and bees’ wax candles is turned into a saga about installing gas lights at Buckingham Palace and Victoria’s deathly fear of rats), and the reveal that Miss Skerritt (Nell Hudson), one of the Queen’s dressers, was once a lady of ill repute.  Unlike the portions of The Crown that dealt with the intrigues among private secretaries and the like as a way of illuminating the pressures of royal tradition, these interludes feel disconnected from the main narrative.

The most interesting relationship in the opening episode is between Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell, oddly enough for a British production like this the biggest name in the cast).  Victoria’s dependence on Melbourne verges on romance, and while he’s presented as ethical enough not to take advantage of the situation, he’s not unmindful of it.

Coleman is engaging as the new Queen but in a 21st-century way that doesn’t quite fit the surroundings; she seems 50 years more modern than Claire Foy in The Crown rather than 100 years behind her.  Sewell handles his role with delicacy, but Peter Firth as Sir John’s co-conspirator and the palace’s other inhabitants are broadly drawn.

PBS will likely be trying for years to come to fill its Downton Abbey gap, and Victoria is closer to the mark than Mr. Selfridge was, but its execution isn’t quite royal enough.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."