Remember back in 2007 when “The Tudors” arrived on Showtime and a European costume drama on cable seemed like a decadent, unusual treat? How times change.
In just six years, such sumptuous television programming has gone from a rarity to commonplace.
Showtime followed up with “The Borgias,” Starz attempted “Camelot,” HBO commissioned the fantasy-drama “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).
Even if a certain style of programming is less-than-fresh, that doesn’t make it unworthy; but just as some viewers may feel crime drama fatigue after the third iteration of “CSI,” folks who normally like costume dramas may feel a little exhausted after the umpteenth “Tudors”-inspired show.
The good news about “The White Queen” is that it 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 assistance 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 who would produce a desired alliance. Snub the Kingmaker at your own peril.
Edward’s mother, Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall), also disapproves of her son’s marriage to Elizabeth, 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 moments of calculated, back-biting zingers make “The White Queen” zip along, but when they’re absent, the story starts to drag.
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 (seemingly in exchange for often appearing topless while writhing on beds in multiple sex scenes).
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 or may not satisfy costume drama fans depending on their tolerance for plodding plots.