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PBS's Victoria is a messy teen queen who lives for drama

PBS’s new show is pulpy, delicious melodrama wrapped in a gorgeous royal period piece.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Courtesy of ITV Plc

Not all queens are created equal.

In the past few years, a couple of different TV shows have aimed to show viewers the inner workings of the English monarchy. E’s The Royals, now in its third season, conjures up a trashy, scandal-ridden soap opera with vindictive (and fictional) Queen Helena pulling all the strings.

On the other side of the spectrum is Netflix’s The Crown, which debuted its first season in November. It’s a gorgeous prestige drama that meticulously traces the life of Queen Elizabeth II as she navigates conflicts between crown, duty, and her personal life.

Somewhere in between lies PBS’s Victoria, a saucy interpretation of the teen queen’s ascension to the throne in 1837 and her influence in the British Empire. Make no mistake — Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is our heroine, and we watch her fight to hang on to her power through ballrooms, staterooms, and royal chambers. The show offers an appreciation for an 18-year-old queen, as well as a surly glare at the institutions and men who tried to constrain her.

Like the queen herself, Victoria the television program isn’t perfect. At times, the script sags and the pacing dulls. The series lacks the weight of The Crown, which is a masterpiece. But Coleman’s Victoria and Rufus Sewell’s Lord Melbourne — Victoria’s prime minister and confidant — in concert with the show’s distinctive style more than make up for its faults.

Here’s the good and bad of Victoria.

Good: Jenna Coleman absolutely carries the show

Victoria could simply be called Jenna Coleman’s Face, as the actress uses every inch of it to tell a story.

Best known for her work on Doctor Who, Coleman will look blissful and innocent in one moment, malevolent and menacing in the next — all without saying a word. So much of this story is about dark emotion, from raging fury to writhing pain, that must be constrained by appearance. Coleman nails that quality, leading the show by example.

The script she’s handed isn’t particularly memorable. The show leans heavily on history and conventional wisdom about English monarchs (or however much of Cate Blanchett’s performance as Queen Elizabeth I we can recall) to drive home themes of female authority and power. But the character becomes a compelling protagonist because of Coleman’s tenacity at playing the teen queen and the sly magic she’s able to weave with the smallest shift in her face.

Bad: Sometimes Victoria feels like the same scene played over and over

The show’s biggest weakness is its tendency to repeat itself in both dialogue and plot. In the first three episodes, much of the show focuses on just where Lord Melbourne might be (here, there, coming, going) and how Victoria is never sure where he is. That plot point unfolds the same way every time.

Melbourne is always late or not showing up when he’s supposed to. Victoria always asks where he is, because he should have been there, and he should have arrived on time. Her handmaidens always assure her he’s on the way. Then she either goes to find him or he comes to her.

The show’s primary antagonists — Victoria’s mother, her adviser, and her uncle — add to the redundancy. They’re cartoonish villains whose existence seems to hinge solely on being villains. It often feels like all three are hatching the same schemes, raising the same eyebrows, muttering the same hushed whispers and innuendos over and over.

Granted, unrequited yearning is a staple of British period piece dramas, as is low-volume political subterfuge. But on Victoria, these plots unfold in the same fashion every time.

It’s an experience more akin to Groundhog Day than an aching, political Victorian love story.

Good: Victoria is deliriously gorgeous

The heart of Victoria’s story is a romantic duel between the queen’s love for her confidant Lord Melbourne and her desire for royal power. Coleman and Sewell successfully convey the mutual desire and impossibility of love between the two. Indeed, Sewell’s brooding Melbourne often feels like a stellar audition for Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy.

But by far the best thing about the show is its visuals.

The costumes are stunning. Each scene is soaked in sunlight or bathed in golden candlelight, highlighting the beauty of the garments. Ball gowns, hairstyles, horses, and romantic gardens — this is a dazzling treat for the eyes that never quits.

Bad: the show’s secondary plots feel like off-brand Downton Abbey

Victoria isn’t just about royals. It possesses a bit of the Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs spirit.

More specifically, it wants you to know that politics and upheaval are also going on in the various relationships among Victoria’s royal servants. Though the actors are great, these stories — save for an ongoing tale featuring a mysterious new hire — are introduced and wrapped up in one episode.

Most of them revolve around the rivalry between the Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz) and Victoria’s steward Penge (Adrian Schiller), as they constantly try to one-up, outwit, and embarrass the other. None of the secondary stories are striking enough to warrant devotion, especially when the oft-repetitive main plots could have used more close attention and care.

Good: Victoria isn’t The Crown. It’s having way more fun.

It’s impossible not to compare Victoria to The Crown. They’re both about royals. They’re both about English queens. They’re both about how said queens wield power. More precisely, they question whether these women truly have any power at all.

But the two shows couldn’t be more different.

There’s a surgical staidness to The Crown that’s completely absent from Victoria. Sure, the Victorian era is marked by a sense of stuffiness and prudishness (due in large part to the idea of social advancement and a growing middle class that typified that stereotype), but this new show brims with camp and scenery-obliterating confrontation.

The best clashes are between Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming). It’s a soapy, daughter-hates-mother catfight transported to the 1800s. The duchess continually scolds her queen daughter, who has a hiss and searing insult for every occasion.

The Duchess’s brothers and adviser all scheme to take away or tap into Queen Victoria’s power. And their plans usually involve nefarious, chin-stroking plots that require secret meetings or flickering candlelight.

The result is a show that’s very different and much pulpier than The Crown and its attendant elegance. It doesn’t wield the weight or depth of that Netflix gem, but depending on your appetite for royal camp, Victoria boasts plenty of moments where it’s far more deliciously fun.

Victoria debuts Sunday, January 15, on PBS as part of its Masterpiece series. It will air at 9 pm in most markets, but you should check local listings.

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