Since VICTORIA was announced as heading to American TV via PBS, it has picked up comparisons to the station’s wildly successful and now-ended Downton Abbey. Other than a British period piece, there’s really no comparison at all. Downton focused on a fictional family with fictional issues that represented a larger cultural picture. Victoria, on the other hand, is very specific and focuses on a real historic character and real historic events, making it something of a more ambitious project. Both shows do include glimpses of upstairs/downstairs life, but even that parallel is loose given that the servants somehow have a very different experience in a royal household.
As Victoria opens, the audience is informed of the year and the recent death of the king and that is teenage niece is next in line to take the throne. Our first glimpse of Victoria is as she lays wide awake in bed, next to her doll with a gilded crown. Portrayed by Dr. Who’s Jenna Coleman, Victoria is a wide-eyed beauty that is fun to watch. Her expression doesn’t change a whole lot during the course of the two-hour premiere episode, so it’s difficult to ascertain her feelings unless other characters are telling us about her and she is reacting. It’s hard to tell if it’s a failure on the part of the actress to react or if she meant to be as lost at sea as a ruler as the rest of the cast makes her out to be and her wide, staring eyes are just meant to indicate innocence and youth. Maybe as she grows up, there will be more reacting and less blankness? Because it is a two-hour premiere, there is a lot that happens during the episode. Some of it is necessary exposition in which we learn that Victoria has no father, her mother is German and relies on the unsavory Sir John for advice. Beyond that, we learn that Victoria is very petite, doesn’t trust Sir John, her mother or their cohort, Lady Flora and that she will manage to create several scandals shortly after taking the throne. So much happens, with so much detail, that it’s a little hard to keep track of all the players at first.
The main emphasis seems to be on how little prepared Victoria is for her role as monarch. She has been kept away from the courts and still relies on dolls for entertainment and a governess for education. Her governess she recycles as her head of household, but she has a bit more trouble giving up her childhood dolls. Although we are meant to see her as much maligned and underestimated as a great ruler, we understand why she is so unjustly thought to be unprepared as her doll makes a frequent appearance. Eventually, she’ll explain to Lord Melbourne, elegantly played by Rufus Sewell, that the doll has no name but was a gift from her mother, “Doll One Hundred and Twenty Three.” Because the episodes are shown together, the doll has significance only for a while but is eventually put away before Victoria appears to have actually matured.
For me, some of the most interesting bits of the show were the lessons in history about how the monarchy works, including Victoria’s ability to choose her own name. Her given name is Alexandrina but apparently, she never liked it. Nor does she like the options presented by Sir John and her mother. There are also mentions of other historical events, like abolishing slavery in Jamaica, which seem especially relevant at the moment.
From the first, we see that Sir John is trying to get close to the queen, despite the fact that she doesn’t trust him and frequently blows him off. Her mother is apparently one of those women that trusts a man more than her own instincts and her own daughter and goes along with his plans, even as they drive her further away from her daughter. During the second act, we’ll see how far Sir John is willing to go to gain power as he plots more strongly against the young queen with the help of her mother and her nefarious uncle, the next in line to the throne.
As she continues to draw away from her mother and her mother’s cronies, she becomes closer to Lord Melbourne, who has quite the reputation with the ladies and manages to become Victoria’s friend and adviser. Needless to say, it sets tongues wagging. I’m not familiar enough with history to tell if it’s a romantic relationship or not although she seems more interested in him as a father figure and he seems to enjoy the role. The show brings up various issues in the queen’s early reign, including choosing only ladies in waiting from a certain party and her unwillingness to play politics. I’m not sure why Victoria is so unprepared and naive. Yes, she’s young, but evidently, she has known she would inherit the throne since the age of thirteen, after a lesson involving her extensive family tree. And surely her mother and cohorts knew before that, so it does seem odd that she is so unprepared. She does continue to assert her power against Sir John’s machinations but in some ways it’s more teenage rebellion than powerful monarch. Through it all, Victoria has various reactions that don’t seem altogether likely, but it does make for a watchable show, even as she learns that virgins can’t be pregnant and creates serious scandals and mistakes along the way to greatness.
Below stairs, former governess turned head of household is trying to save money, even as the servants sell off odd bits like old gloves and partial candles to earn extra money. There’s also an ordeal involving the installation of gas lights into the palace. And we discover that new maid Skerrett is a former sex worker that has made her way into the palace and continues to ingratiate herself into the below stairs gang, even as head Francatelli seems to recognize her. Despite the intrigue and mysteries and plot going on in the servants’ quarters, it’s hard to care about it as much as the main plot that follows the monarch. With Downton, every character was key, regardless of class, but it’s much harder to see that happening with Victoria.
A two-hour premiere might have been a little too much of a good thing as somehow the overall story became more convoluted than it need be. Perhaps hour-long episodes will be better for keeping a more concise plot as next week we know that Victoria will be introduced to Albert. And because it’s a historical program, we know that Albert will be her true love and eventual husband and father to her many kids—which is why it seems awkward to initially place Victoria as ingénue with a crush on the much older Lord Melbourne and then have her savvy enough to be courting soon after.
Victoria may not be quite as brilliant as other recent period pieces, but it is compelling, all the same, thanks in great part to a supporting cast and a beautiful lead.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Victoria airs Sundays at 9PM on PBS
Carly is a freelance writer that watches too much TV while she writes blogs and articles about lifestyle including travel, food, fashion, beauty, home decor, entertainment, health, fitness and wellness and green living.
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Carly Zinderman | Contributor