PBS’ life-after-“Downton Abbey” phase continues with “Victoria,” another handsome historical drama about a British monarch. Still, the bar’s set pretty high for such endeavors, with this polished eight-part series falling somewhat short of Netflix’s recent “The Crown” and Masterpiece’s own “Wolf Hall.”
“Victoria” opens in 1837, with the monarchy in crisis (isn’t it always?) as the 18-year-old Victoria (“Doctor Who’s” Jenna Coleman) is forced to assume the throne from her uncle. Relatively uneducated, the newly christened Queen leans heavily on the counsel of Lord Melbourne (a terrific Rufus Sewell), the prime minister, rejecting input from her mother (Catherine Flemming) and her controlling friend Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), who brazenly thirsts for power and refers to the tiny Victoria (just under 5-feet tall) as “unformed.”
The relationship with Melbourne actually becomes a source of palace scuttlebutt, as pressure mounts on Victoria to wed. To that extent there’s a touch of “The Last Emperor,” initially, in the queen’s plight, showered as she is in privilege while frequently being denied what she wants by the strictures placed upon her by those who profess to know better.
Subsequent episodes delve into the thorny issue surrounding her courtship by Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), whose strain of German royalty doesn’t mesh with the sensibilities of the court.
There’s also a fair amount of time devoted to the downstairs staff, although their exploits clearly take a backseat to — and are less compelling than — the royal machinations. Indeed, Coleman holds center stage an inordinate amount of the time, and it’s a dazzling performance given the mix of almost-childlike innocence, unexpected resolve and occasional petulance she has to exhibit.
Created and written by novelist Daisy Goodwin in an impressive screenwriting debut, “Victoria” gradually gains steam after its somewhat slow two-hour premiere, as its title character lurches from one challenge to the next. It’s all impeccably mounted, if a tad familiar in its focus on manners and palace intrigue — very much in keeping with the Masterpiece formula.
Of course, “Downton” unfairly altered expectations for such fare, both in its level of soapy appeal and its gaudy ratings. As the aforementioned “The Crown” makes clear, PBS also no longer has a monopoly on British drama, which now reaches the U.S. via a wide variety of sources.
As a consequence “Victoria” looks appropriately and enjoyably regal but only fitfully feels stirring enough to expand on the genre’s loyal core. Take that as a sign that in the Masterpiece business, the crown has gotten that much heavier.
“Victoria” premieres January 15 at 9 p.m. on PBS.