If you were to see the trailer or basically any promotional material for “The Serpent Queen,” Starz’s new series about the infamous life of one Catherine de Medici, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a showcase for Samantha Morton in a historical drama with modern touches, following in the footsteps of her recent turn in “Harlots.” Even its arresting opening credits sequence, which sees Morton stride to a throne to a heavy guitar lick as snakes slither out and toward her, suggests a show preoccupied with being Edgy and Different — a show that would consider itself to be not like Starz’s many other historical drama girls, as it were.
However: as adapted from Leonie Frieda’s biography by Justin Haythe, this perception proves to be only somewhat the case. In fact, the first few episodes of “The Serpent Queen” — which premieres Sunday, Sept. 11 — feature Morton sparingly, with an elder Catherine telling the story of how she came to France as a teenager (played by Liv Hill) to a spirited maid (Sennia Nanua), in whom she sees a kindred spirit. In truth, Morton should only barely be considered the show’s lead until the fourth episode, which moves Catherine’s flashbacks far enough forward in time that she can safely assume the role in both the past and present, as she begins to square off against her formidable daughter-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots (Antonia Clarke).
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While frustrating to watch the engrossing Morton on the fringes of what’s ostensibly her show, that’s to take nothing away from Hill, whose performance is so spirited that it’s a little disappointing when she necessarily has to make her exit. As she did when embodying a younger Glenda Jackson in the BBC’s memorable TV film “Elizabeth Is Missing,” Hill quickly proves herself worthy of portraying one of Europe’s most notorious women during the most tenuous time of her life. For all the “Fleabag”-ian asides to the camera the scripts keep throwing her (nor do most of the shows adopting the practice at what seems an exponential pace these days), Hill doesn’t need to tell the audience directly what’s going on inside Catherine’s head to make her knowable.
While Hill and Morton split the royal duties, there is an inner circle that remains constant throughout both timelines. There’s Henry’s maternal mistress Diane de Poitiers, played with melodramatic relish by Ludivine Sagnier. There are Catherine’s Italian ladies-in-waiting: Mathilde (an arresting Kiruna Stamell), Aabis (Amrita Acharia), and Angelica (Ruby Bentall). And as King Francis, Catherine’s fond father-in-law, Colm Meaney is at turns bombastic, caring, and mercurial. Beyond Hill’s evolution into a steely Morton, none of these characters seem to age at all when the series picks up 15 years after Catherine’s first pregnancy (scheming one’s way to a more secure spot atop the throne seems to age a person well beyond her years, it seems).
Maybe the most interesting about “The Serpent Queen,” though, is the strange tension between its attempts to twist the historical drama with fourth-wall breaks and modern soundtrack and the fact that it is otherwise….well, an entirely typical historical drama. Which is fine! Maybe Haythe and Starz believed their versions of Catherine de Medici needed to seem more overtly rock and roll in order to have broader appeal. But the show as it actually exists doesn’t need to try so hard to look different. The straightforward version of “Serpent Queen,” anchored by two very capable actors and detailing a uniquely fascinating woman’s history, is satisfying enough.
“The Serpent Queen” premieres Sunday, Sept. 11 on Starz.
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