Entire family: No, small children will be bored
2016, 415 min. (8 episodes), Color
Rated TV-PG for some adult situations
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Featured audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
Bonus features: C+
Recently we’ve seen a lot of TV series telling the stories of royals and nobility—so many that it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially if you’re wondering what’s suitable for viewing if you have children old enough to appreciate the intricacies of a historical drama. I’m reminded of the Three Bears porridge: The Royals (E!), Reign (The CW), and Versailles (BBC2/Ovation) can run a little hot; The Crown (Netflix) can be a bit too cold; but Victoria (Masterpiece/PBS) seems just right. There are no graphic sex scenes here, no language to grapple with, no violence to speak of, and no serious breaks in morality . . . just nicely handled adult situations and complications.
If you have teens, they’ll be most drawn to Reign (with its hip young cast) and this series starring the effervescent Jenna Coleman as young Queen Victoria, with the first season covering her ascension to the throne as an eighteen year old and continuing through her battles with family and members of the privy council. The first season focuses mostly on her growing dependence upon (and eventual distancing from) close advisors Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell) and Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz), and her courtship and first year of marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes)—a cousin from the German royal side of the family.
In the past, Masterpiece could tend toward the staid or austere, but since the phenomenal popular success of Downton Abbey they’ve grasped the value of the old maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize here a similar structure and a number of familiar elements. As in Downton Abbey, viewers get a two-tiered look at life in England: the royals and nobles who live, work, and play in and around Buckingham and Windsor Palaces, and the servants who tend to them and have their own interactions. It’s hard, for example, not to think of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Bates and Anna while watching a maid with a tawdry past (Nell Hudson) pursued by a pastry chef (Ferdinand Kingsley). While the below-deck cast of characters isn’t as compelling as the royals, there’s enough here to provide a nice contrast and introduce side plots that keep the series from dragging.
Some of young Victoria’s problems are peculiar to royalty. Parliament must approve her marriage, she must deal with a power grab, she must find a way to be “an ordinary woman” so her relationship to Prince Albert can work while she also rules as the most powerful and wealthy woman in the world, and she must name a regent in the event that she dies in childbirth. But there is also much here that young viewers can identify with. Overbearing and would-be controlling mother? Check. Disapproving elders? Check. Put off by a young man and yet oddly attracted to him? Check. Feeling awkward around a member of the opposite sex? Check. Trying to live up to expectations while also figuring out how to be yourself? Check.
Fans of A Knight’s Tale will enjoy seeing Sewell, too often cast as a sinister fellow, playing a warmly sympathetic character. And those who enjoyed the 2009 film The Young Victoria will find it fascinating to see how two different production companies approached the portrayal of Prince Albert, an interesting combination of intellectual-nerd and brooding bad boy. But the big draw is Coleman (Doctor Who), who, as young Queen Victoria, is just as fresh and bubbly and strong and vulnerable and candid and dignified as can be. This is her series, and she is a talented and charismatic enough actress to carry it.
One note: if you’re used to HD, this title is available on Blu-ray and I’d advise you to get that version rather than the DVD, which isn’t as sharp as some standard-res offerings I’ve seen. Some of the CGI work to recreate Old London seems a little two-dimensional, but the soundstage built inside a hangar to replicate the interior of Buckingham Palace is so detailed and the cinematography so beautiful that you’ll want to better appreciate them in HD.
Language: Just a few mild swears here and there
Sex: No nudity, no sex scenes, but Victoria and Albert do kiss and there is implied coupling as she is expected to produce an heir
Violence: A gunshot is fired point blank at someone, a woman is briefly threatened, and a man is taken to a brothel
Adult situations: The whole series is pretty adult in its situations, with one woman a former prostitute, stealing for survival a theme, and the whole idea of cousins marrying something you might have to discuss with your older kids
Takeaway: Downton Abbey is alive and well, reincarnated as a new series about Great Britain’s second-longest reigning queen, and a woman who publicly championed morality