It's the first major weekend of television in 2017 and there are three shows you need to know about. Two are about leadership and power. And both of those are about hard-nosed but vulnerable leaders. The third is about a hard-nosed but vulnerable spy.
Victoria (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece) is highly enjoyable tosh that will please fans of British period-piece drama and infuriate those who know some authentic detail about the characters and the period dramatized. It's about Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman), obviously, and takes a very particular point of view.
This Victoria is impetuous, a bit nervous at first and then mentored toward power by the prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), who has, well, complicated feelings for the young Queen. He's a bit soft on her, and it's all depicted in a way that departs from history. The real Melbourne was a stout, older man and not the charming, slightly fey fellow seen here.
The charm of the tosh rests entirely in the tiny frame of Coleman. This is a tiny Victoria whose size and age – she was a teenager when summoned and told she would be crowned – and spirit are very much at odds with the stately homes and stuffy older men around her. "You don't think I'm too short to be dignified?" she asks Melbourne at one point.
The eight-part series, which looks gorgeous, is about the early life of Queen Victoria and pitched to viewers as an upmarket romance novel. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Some of the subplot story lines are interesting as unusual plot devices – this Victoria lives in rat-infested, squalid conditions that simply look grand on the outside. Her servants are unreliable and those in her entourage are, for the most part, not to be trusted. The central narrative seems to be Victoria transcending her highly peculiar, sheltered existence to become a pragmatic, self-assured monarch.
As such, it is a sort of hybrid of romance and chick-lit novel. The highly fictionalized aspect of the story – especially the giddy start of the romance with Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) – won't bother viewers who want to be beguiled by the frocks and the scenery.
The Young Pope (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) is the work of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, and it is very Italian, very camp, unsettling and slightly mad. Also, it's a refreshing kind of drama – elliptical, gorgeously nuanced and yet forcefully about faith and power.
Jude Law plays the newly elected pope. He is Lenny Belardo, an American, and the cardinals elected him believing him to be an easily manipulated pope, a man to be controlled. Upon election, though, and after naming himself Pius XIII, Lenny emerges as the one who controls. He's a passive-aggressive, stone-hearted sociopath.
What we get, at first, is like a fantasy of a new kind of pope. When we first meet him he's addressing the faithful and calling for liberation from the old ways. Is this real? No.
And when we see Lenny/Pius in his day-to-day existence in the Vatican, he insists on having a Cherry Coke and only a Cherry Coke – for breakfast – and reacts with formidable cruelty when the elderly nun assigned to cook for him tries to be motherly and friendly. Raised mainly by a nun (played by Diane Keaton with some pizzazz), he has major mommy issues. What ensues is the making of a demagogue but one who wants to rule the Catholic Church from the shadows. He doesn't want his image used, he shuns public events and, at the same time, relishes power.
This is not a drama for everyone. It is emphatically unconventional, shifting tone and approach with confidence. It is art-house TV drama.
It is, however, absolutely worth seeing for its strangeness and use of highly stylized visual imagery and for Jude Law's remarkable performance. He is the embodiment of cold cruelty and the actor inhabits the role with extraordinary focus and relish.
Homeland (Sunday, Super Channel, 9 p.m.) had a terrific season last year, dwelling on radical Muslim terrorism in Europe. This time, it delves assuredly into the political circumstance in the United States and is set mainly between the election of a new president – a woman – and the inauguration.
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is working in Brooklyn for that billionaire philanthropist Otto During (Sebastian Koch) who appeared last season. She's examining the case of a Muslim youth who is considered a threat, but Carrie isn't sure.
Meanwhile, in another instance of the show mirroring contemporary politics, the incoming president is deeply suspicious of the intelligence info she is being given. This, of course, causes problems for Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Carrie's old nemesis Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham). As for Quinn (Rupert Friend), so brutalized last season, let's just say he's a wreck.
One advance review said: "A little Trump dog-whistling is being done for the Homeland faithful." That's a "maybe" but Homeland Season 6 sure is intriguingly fraught.