SERIES "Becoming Elizabeth"
WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9:04 p.m. on Starz.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT After the death of Henry VIII in 1547, Edward VI (Oliver Zetterström) — who is all of nine — has been crowned new king of England. His sister, Mary (Ramola Garai), is a Catholic, hence persona non grata, while his other sister, Elizabeth Tudor (German actor Alicia von Rittberg), has moved into the castle of her stepmother, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine). Parr's secret lover is Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen) — whom Elizabeth instantly develops a crush on — while Thomas' brother, Edward Seymour (John Heffernan) has appointed himself "Lord Protector." That means Edward makes most of the new king's decisions because he's still a child, and also makes him the most powerful person in England. Thomas despises him for the power grab and a struggle over the future of the crown ensues.
As the title indicates, this eight-parter is all about "becoming" as opposed to being. Elizabeth I will not be crowned until 1558, when she is 25.
MY SAY "Becoming Elizabeth" was created by 30-something English playwright Anya Reiss, who built a considerable reputation as a precocious 20-something director adapting Chekhov plays for the London stage. With Chekhov, think family squabbles and unrequited love set against tectonic shifts underway in late 19th century Russian society. With Reiss' "Elizabeth," think pretty much the same, with an obvious difference. The king is dead, and not just any king but the one who married six wives, dispatched five, and split English society — also brutally — over loyalty to the Papacy. Those who paid attention in high school history class will know how all this eventually turns out. A youthful, hormonal, introspective Elizabeth circa 1547 certainly doesn't.
In "Becoming Elizabeth'' she is indeed becoming: Watchful and brainy, but also lovelorn and frustrated, she is like any teen who just wants to get out of the house (here, the castle), or away from her parents (here, her stepmom.) If she were a 20th or 21st century kid, she'd be demanding the keys to the car (here, the reins to a horse).
Meanwhile, she's a pawn in a power game she doesn't fully understand, nor possibly could. It's brother-against-brother (one of whom she has a crush on) and a stepmother who has a keen interest in the outcome of the fraternal battle. Elizabeth seems to be the only one in the castle who is actually grieving her recently dead father — a wonder, considering he had her mother beheaded just a few years before. In the midst of that grief, another teen, Lady Jane Grey (Bella Ramsey), moves into the castle and immediately establishes herself as a rival to Elizabeth. (Alas, poor Lady Jane is also a pawn, and will lose her head soon enough too.)
What's so good about Reiss' "Elizabeth" is the prevailing sense that nobody knows anything, and certainly doesn't know what comes next. This isn't textbook TV history, but human affairs on a small scale, or at least an eye-level one. We may not recognize the historic figures scene to scene (keep your Wikipedia handy) but we do recognize those emotions and family dynamics.
All this will be instantly recognizable to fans of Starz' Philippa Gregory adaptations — "The White Princess, "The White Queen" and "The Spanish Princess" — while "Becoming Elizabeth'' is effectively the next chapter in the series. But they'll sense something different here too. Dark, brooding, cerebral (and Chekhovian), at least like those other series, it's also irresistible.
BOTTOM LINE Smart, engaging and a lot of moving pieces (so do a little homework first).