France’s “Sun King” Louis XIV, the protagonist of the new BBC2 show “Versailles” (whose U.S. premiere was Oct. 1 on Ovation) hasn’t always been presented in popular media quite as one might expect, for the mastermind behind the palace of Versailles. Neither a wartime king nor particularly an eventful reign, the subject of Ovation’s latest import is viewed through the lens of aesthetics: Like his life’s project, the titular palace, the fourteenth Louis is first and foremost a curiosity.
To put this particular Louis into context: He is the grandfather of the Louis who married Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” played by Jason Schwartzman; the father of the Louis encountered by Claire and Jamie last season on “Outlander”; and the grandson of Ben Aldridge’s Antoine of Navarre from Season 2 of “Reign.”
Previous filmic representations of this particular monarch seem limited to the short-lived fantasy series “Young Blades” and the Alan Rickman vehicle “A Little Chaos” in 2014. His position at the center of “Versailles” shows us an intriguing character, while reminding us of all the very good reasons he’s since been eclipsed by his descendants.
“Vikings'” beloved Athelstan himself, George Blagden, plays Louis XIV as a 20-something monarch already well into the second decade of his reign. His mother has recently passed, but otherwise he leads a charmed life: Untold wealth and power, his pick of any woman for a lover — effectively a 17th-century Justin Bieber, luxe life tinged with otherness. Like Dunst’s own Antoinette, this Sun King bears the inescapable vulnerability of someone so removed from normal life he cannot understand how different he, or his life, truly are.
Like another recent alpha-male historic lead, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’s Henry VIII in “The Tudors,” Blagden is all pouty lips, soul patch, and glossy Kate Middleton hair. As the series begins, he receives a vision in a dream that he should turn his father’s old hunting lodge (the titular palace) into a sort of gilded birdcage for all of his courtiers. Unlike the inherent conflict in any Henry VIII biopic, for example, from “Wolf Hall” to “The Tudors,” where Henry must grapple with his religious and political ambitions while obsessing over his lack of a male heir, Louis seems … pretty chill, really. His problems are more about interior design, gossip and sex.
Henry VIII, Louis XVI, and even Emperor Caligula were all absolute monarchs whose stories have been told and re-told, perhaps in part due to the built-in arc of each: Henry has his young hero-turns-Blackbeard trope, Louis XVI’s death by guillotine symbolized a change in Western history, while Caligula was done in by his own grotesque decadence. Louis XIV ruled for 72 years, during which France consolidated its power: A kind of stability admirable for international relations, and aspirational in real life — but challenging to turn into a twisty TV series.
There’s a reason most of the recent historical TV focuses on those traditionally disregarded in historical text — women, people of color, illegitimate children, the disabled. They come with their own arc, and provide immediate audience surrogates. “Versailles,” given the straightforward life of its hero, wisely surrounds him with the sorts of characters who might — on another network, in another medium — have been our surrogates into his world.
Chief among these are his neglected wife, Maria Theresa (Elisa Lasowski), whose tender relationship with a black dwarf is hinted to correlate with the complexion of the daughter she births at this episode’s close — perhaps connected with a historical rumor suggesting that a woman, known as the Black Nun of Moret, was a bastard of the royal family. Presumably, the child’s future will drive the series as we move forward.
Louis’s mopey younger brother Philippe (Alexander “Mordred from ‘Merlin'” Vlahos), whose playing-card face is often indistinguishable from his brothers but for the king’s soul patch, also seems primed for a major secondary role. Seen first with a male lover, we learn Philippe is married to Henriette (Noemie Schmidt) — another of Louis’s frequently topless lovers — and while Henriette is clearly a naif in this world of intrigue, it is as yet unclear whether Philippe is himself under the manipulation of others, or taking the trope role of mustache-twirling queer man so familiar from the lazier of your historical dramas.
As with any pilot, our closer offers the series’ thesis: But unlike most, here it is delivered in a Steve Jobs-ian pitch as Louis XIV outlines his plans for the palace to courtiers who, it should be noted, would probably be tortured or murdered if they didn’t support him. It is this same assemblage who will, as the series progresses, come to see the palace as less a gilded birdcage and more of a 17th century “Big Brother” scenario: everyone trapped together, forced to constantly interact, emotions running high, no way to escape.
Where Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” filled the palace with pastels and macarons, “Versailles” is all moody shadows and dark jewel tones. Even the hairstyles — powdered white wigs for Coppola, long brunette waves for “Versailles” — help serve this darker mood.
Louis XIV invites his courtiers to imagine the palace filled with mirrors, parties, and good times, and the courtiers smile politely and perhaps believe him. Centering the story on Louis’ dream grants us the opportunity to learn about the construction and planning of the palace — but hopefully leaves room for Maria Theresa, Philippe, Henriette and the others, to show us how those many who’re born without a king’s divine rights feel about their master’s plans.
“Versailles” airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Ovation.