Slow plot development doesn't help 'The White Queen'

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Remember when "The Tudors" arrived on Showtime in 2007 and a European costume drama on cable seemed like a decadent, unusual treat? How times change.

In just six years, such royal programming has become common.

Showtime followed up with "The Borgias," Starz attempted "Camelot," HBO commissioned "Game of Thrones," this fall The CW introduces a Mary Queen of Scots story with "Reign" and this week Starz debuts "The White Queen" (9 p.m. Saturday).

'The White Queen'

When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Starz.

Starring: Rebecca Ferguson, above.

Even if a certain style of programming is less than fresh, that doesn't make it unworthy; but just as some viewers feel crime drama fatigue after the third iteration of "CSI," folks who like costume dramas may feel a little exhausted after the umpteenth "Tudors"-inspired show.

The good news: "The White Queen" gets off to an entertaining start. The bad news: In subsequent episodes it gets bogged down in then-this-happened, then-that-happened jumps through history.

Set in 1464 England -- pointedly before the beginning of the Tudor dynasty -- "The White Queen" is based on the historical novel series "The Cousins War" by Philippa Gregory, specifically the books "The Red Queen," "The White Queen" and "The Kingmaker's Daughter."

Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), a commoner whose family was devoted to the House of Lancaster, seeks out the House of York's King Edward IV (Max Irons) for help after her husband was killed in battle fighting against the Yorks. Edward takes an interest in Elizabeth, almost rapes her and then marries her in secret.

Their union does not sit well with Lord Warwick (James Frain, "The Tudors"), aka "The Kingmaker," who had been eyeing a French bride for an alliance. Snub the Kingmaker at your own peril.

Edward's mother, Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall), also disapproves of her son's marriage, which brings out a fierceness in Elizabeth's spell-casting mother, Jacquetta (Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"), prompting her to scold the Duchess: "I believe you do know the proper custom when presented to the queen of England is to curtsy."

These calculated, back-biting zingers make "The White Queen" zip along, but when they're absent, the story drags.

A strong focus on female characters distinguishes "The White Queen" from its predecessors. While the men are nominally in charge, it's the power broker women who really drive the plot.

In addition to Elizabeth, the White Queen, the story also tracks Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), the Red Queen, a York-loyal, crazy-eyed religious zealot who thinks her son, Henry Tudor (Reece Pockney), has been ordained by God to become king. Her husband is less certain.

"Edward is also anointed by God, so how should he know which one to pick? Perhaps God is confused and doesn't know himself," Sir Henry Stafford (Michael Maloney) says.

Kingmaker's daughter Anne Ne-ville (Faye Marsay), the third woman who takes a leading role, delighted in playing queen as a child with her sister, Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson), before experiencing some horrific unintended consequences of having to flee to France.

While the upcoming CW drama "Reign" takes this genre in a more fun and youthful direction by incorporating modern music and a quick pace, "The White Queen" offers traditional storytelling that may satisfy costume drama fans depending on their tolerance for plodding plots.

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Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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