To deliver the next chapter in the life of one of England’s most influential monarchs, PBS’ “Victoria” is leaning into its soapier side. Although Queen Victoria led a fascinating life, creator Daisy Goodwin doesn’t seem content with merely dramatizing historical events. Instead, in Season 2 she adds a layer of “Downton Abbey”-lite shenanigans downstairs, along with a series of manufactured romances for good measure. What results is too much story and not enough impact.
Beyond this narrative bloat, the series feels too neatly turned out in both story and characterizations, while eschewing subtlety and depth. This makes for curiously bland melodrama, but at least it’s saved by some gorgeous visuals and notable performances.
Anchoring the series, Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes are back as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the royal pair who couldn’t keep their hands off each other after a brief period of trying to deny their feelings. Their intense chemistry drove Season 1, and despite hitting a few rough spots, the romance is still very much alive this year.
A handful of others also deserve nods for making the most of their parts. Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne, the former Prime Minister, has a much reduced role this time around. Nevertheless, the strength of his presence is undeniable, and he appears in one of the most affecting scenes of the season. Also arresting are David Oakes, as Albert’s lively yet wounded brother Prince Ernest, and Dame Diana Rigg, who joins the cast as the outspoken Duchess of Buccleuch.
In Season 2, Victoria and Albert navigate what it means to be first-time parents who also happen to be Queen and consort. While Albert is all too ready to pitch into governing, effectively giving Victoria maternity leave, she is clearly not content to be removed from politics and decision-making. Once they overcome the subsequent tension and rebalance of power, though, the mad parade of events begin, ranging from the Irish Potato Famine, England pulling out of Kabul, disagreements with Parliament, assassination attempts, and more. The supporting storylines feel shoehorned in, and sitting through these can amount to long stretches of very pretty tedium.
There are deaths and heartbreak aplenty, but through the benefit of time and the series’ dreamy imagery, the weight of those events are remote and never felt. Where the series excels, however, are the quieter, more joyful moments. Watching Albert indulge in his passion for machines and invention is a lot of fun, and a sojourn in Scotland where the royal couple gets lost is one of the best parts of the season.
While this adventure gives Victoria time away from her duties, it simultaneously allows the show to breathe and relax as well. It’s here that we see personalities come out and more of the color of the era. It’s a shame there aren’t more sequences like this that does more to reveal the interior life of the woman behind the crown than other scenes have. “Victoria” could do well to explore conversations and scenarios that don’t have a specific narrative objective. In short, “Victoria” needs to dive into the messiness without the reliance of a safety net.
All that said, “Victoria” is still a welcome way to spend a Sunday evening. It provides a nostalgic escape for those yearning for a more structured time and government. During our current political climate, looking back at how other crises have not just been endured, but overcome is comforting in retrospect.
Season 2 of “Victoria” premieres with a two-hour episode on PBS’ “Masterpiece” on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.