Review: One Vote for ‘Victoria’ Over ‘The Crown’

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Review: One Vote for ‘Victoria’ Over ‘The Crown’
Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes in “Victoria” on PBS. Credit ITV

Vicky or Liz? “Victoria” or “The Crown”? The simultaneous existence of lavish, successful television series dramatizing the lives of the current British queen, Elizabeth II, and her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, makes comparison inevitable.

“Victoria” on PBS and “The Crown” on Netflix have much in common. Each has filmed two seasons with a third on the way. Each features a heroine who feels trapped in her royal role but accomplishes more than is expected of her, while massaging the bruised ego of her husband and consort. Each hopscotches through history, cherry-picking crises and triumphs that fit the demands of episodic storytelling.

Where they differ is in how seriously they’re taken. “Victoria,” created and mostly written by the relatively unknown Daisy Goodwin, has received a handful of Emmy and Bafta nominations for music and makeup. “The Crown,” created and mostly written by the highly credentialed Peter Morgan, has harvested nominations and awards, including a Golden Globe for best drama.

So call me shallow, or just contrary, for preferring the breezy, full-blooded pleasures of “Victoria” to the more finely wrought, stiffer virtues of “The Crown.” Who would have thought that the person for whom the Victorian Era was named would be this much fun?

Season 2 of “Victoria” on “Masterpiece,” which begins Sunday with a two-hour episode and runs for seven weeks (ending with what was a separate Christmas special in Britain), covers the first half of the 1840s. The young queen begins producing what will eventually be a brood of nine children, while presiding over disasters like the British retreat from Kabul and the Irish potato famine. A new prime minister, Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay), has her respect but not the love she felt for his predecessor, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell).

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Ms. Goodwin stays true to her conception of Victoria as a combination of coquettish flibbertigibbet, tough proto-feminist and compassionate, perhaps too-good-to-be-true liberal humanist. She recoils when labeled “pleasingly fecund,” suffers through a bout of postpartum depression, is forgiving of the staff’s peccadilloes and shakes hands with the black American actor Ira Aldridge (Ashley Zhangazha) — an audacious move in that era — when he comes to the palace to declaim lines from “Othello.”

Like a Disney princess, the queen has an almost unerring instinct for the right choice, though the script often stacks the deck in such a way that the choices make themselves. (Victoria’s compassion for the starving Irish is helped along when one of her ministers calls the famine “an inevitable period of self-regulation” of what he regards as a shiftless population.)

Ms. Goodwin is not immune to clichés and on-the-nose metaphors (the constrictiveness of the corset, the sleight-of-hand of French cooking). A too-familiar sickbed scene should not end with the doctor saying, “The fever has broken,” and yet it does. The need to compress history leads to moments that are maudlin or heavy-handed.

But she has a Julian Fellowes-like ability to keep a story moving and fill it with interesting, engaging characters. Diana Rigg, no longer needed in “Game of Thrones,” joins the cast in high curmudgeon mode as a lady in waiting, a harrumphing embodiment of British propriety and narrow-mindedness. Mr. Sewell briefly reprises his touching portrayal of Melbourne, and Tom Hughes is still fine as the broody but well-meaning Prince Albert (a marked contrast to the conceited simp Matt Smith makes out of Prince Philip in “The Crown.”)

But the engine of the show, the thing that keeps it from being just another period soap opera, is Jenna Coleman’s inexhaustible, tremendously engaging portrayal of Victoria, a performance whose easy charm can obscure the fact that it’s as subtle and witty as anything Claire Foy does as Elizabeth II in “The Crown.”

“Victoria” is at heart a love story, or collection of love stories, and while Ms. Goodwin occasionally bogs down in history, she can always get back on solid ground with romance. In Season 2 she introduces, as a counterpoint to Victoria and Albert, an unspoken attraction between a courtier and a civil servant (Jordan Waller and Leo Suter) that’s an unusually complex and moving depiction of a gay relationship.

But every episode comes back, one way or another, to Victoria and Albert, and Ms. Coleman and Mr. Hughes make us believe in their tender (but highly physical) attraction to each other, and root for their success. If the lasting image of “The Crown” is Elizabeth and Philip retreating to separate beds, “Victoria” gives us Little Vicky and her prince, their beautiful heads of hair impeccably tousled, walking hand in hand in the Scottish Highlands. There’s no wrong choice there, but there’s a more immediately gratifying one.

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