The first season of The Crown cost almost £100 million to produce, and its reception as a flagship prestige series for Netflix has already garnered it a second season renewal. Now, admittedly, I’m only just starting the fourth episode, but that’s in my opinion both enough exposure to make a call on the quality of a narrative series and also about how much of a commitment I can make to something that doesn’t particularly appeal to me.
The upside of historical fiction is that in any review of it you don’t have to worry about spoiling major plot points, as most of it is based on things that already happened before most of us were born. Basically, the premise of the series follows Queen Elizabeth II (played earnestly by Claire Foy) from her marriage to Prince Phillip (former Doctor Who star Matt Smith) to the death of her father King George VI (Jared Harris, who proves one of the stronger performances in the series). The Crown covers the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth II’s early challenges in balancing her own life with the pressures and expectations of the title of Queen. The Queen’s sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby in a standout role) and larger-than-life character Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, who gives it his all but is also distractingly very much John Lithgow) also round out the cast of characters who you might recall from history classes.
Before I say anything else about the story and writing, I do want to point out that narrative aside, this show is damned beautiful. The cinematography and production are top-notch; the locations, were they not being used to stage a compelling story, could easily be refurbished for a tourism advertisement.
The show is at its strongest (but also in a way its weakest) in its most human moments. The illness and death of a father, power dynamics and expectations in a marriage, and the pain of familial dysfunction and distance are portrayed poignantly. They are great frames to better understand a royal family and an institution that most of us know little about, and humanize a distant and traditional class of society that most of us would rather do without. However, the human moments the series wants to emphasize and put at the forefront — the balance between the person and the responsibility and demands of royal office — are when I lose interest.
First of all, we have the basic fact that any responsibility and demand of royal office doesn’t really seem that bad considering the level of luxury and power given to these people for no better reason than being born or married into the right family. It’s hard to feel bad that Elizabeth and her family are being thrust into this position when the images of their life otherwise are: her barely spending time with her children (the way it’s presented shows them being closer to their father), having no career or occupation otherwise and Phillip mostly just tooling around rowing boats and getting promoted because he’s royal, their awkward interactions with “regular people” (the second episode has this in spades courtesy of Phillip), and their lack of interaction or meaningful acknowledgement of the dozens of serving staff constantly around them.
Maybe it’s just the cloud of egalitarian anti-class revolution in the atmosphere talking, but it’s hard to paint a rosy or engaging image of a backward institution like the monarchy. Everyone involved has been giving it their all, but until I see a character acknowledge how fucking lucky they are to be born into the bullshit they’ve been handed, I won’t really care if you have to smile in public and have people hand you cursory reports on stuff that doesn’t really concern you.
At least the Game of Thrones has sympathetic characters, ice demons, and cool sword fights.