Depending on your personality and taste, subject matter can be at least as important as quality, if not more, when it comes to choosing a new TV series. Two sentiments I’ve often encountered from readers: “I know it’s not very good, but I just want to watch a show like this,” and, “I’m sure it’s great, but you couldn’t pay me to watch a show about that.”
Really good shows, though, can transcend their subject matter, if only they can get the skeptics to watch. The challenge of bringing people to Friday Night Lights, for instance, was that half its potential audience didn’t want to watch a show about football, and the other half didn’t want to watch a teen drama; almost anyone on either side who could be forced to overcome their personal biases wound up loving it.
I’m not without my own biases, and Netflix’s The Crown on paper smacks up against a bunch of them, as it’s all about the many woes and worries of being incredibly rich, famous, and part of British nobility. None of these topics tend to interest me on their own, and in combination they can be extreme Alan-repellent. (Even when Downton Abbey was good in its early days, it often felt like homework for me to get through.)
Yet I devoured The Crown season one as if it were a superior example of one of my more favored genres. That’s how smart and empathetic Peter Morgan’s scripts were, how lushly everything was photographed, and how superb the cast was, and particularly Claire Foy as the young Queen Elizabeth, Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. For those ten episodes, the quality was so high that the subject barely mattered at all to me, and I found myself feeling profound sympathy for, say, Margaret when Elizabeth forbade her from marrying her divorced older boyfriend, Group Captain Peter Townsend(*).
(*) It’s a testament to the spell season one cast over me that I now smile every time a character insists on referring to Peter by his full and proper military rank. He is always “Group Captain Townsend,” a collection of syllables that dances out of the mouths of Foy, Kirby, and others.
The drama’s second season (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all 10 episodes) unfortunately isn’t at that level. It’s peppered with moments, and even whole episodes, that evoke the quality of season one, but overall there are enough decisions to bring it down into “If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like this sort of thing” territory, where once it was the sort of show where I always had to preface my remarks with, “I know this doesn’t sound like it’s for you, but…”
Some of the issues are mostly beyond Morgan’s control. He’s attempting to chart Elizabeth’s reign chronologically and mostly faithfully(*), and the period covered here — from the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 to the Profumo sex scandal in 1963 — is just less dramatically interesting than the one chronicled last year. Elizabeth is no longer a novice queen struggling to balance her own instincts with the advice offered by all the women and (mostly) men in her tiny circle, but a confident monarch who has mostly figured out the powers and limitations of her title. And where the aging Churchill was both a superb foil for the younger Elizabeth and compelling enough to carry episodes on his own, his successors Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) and Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser, Qyburn from Game of Thrones) were not towering figures of history, and are mostly left to exist on the fringes of the narrative, throwing off season one’s careful balance between stories of people who are symbols of power and of those wielding actual power.
(*) The British press has already complained about the finale, which alleges greater involvement by Prince Philip in the Profumo affair than has ever been verified by investigators or historians.
But many of the season’s wounds are self-inflicted, in particular Morgan’s mystifying fascination with Prince Philip, who despite Matt Smith’s best efforts still comes across as a whiny manchild who can’t get over having to remain in a secondary position to his own wife. Yes, his feelings of emasculation may be accurate to the period, but this Philip is a one-note, annoying character who nonetheless takes over large swaths of the new season, while Elizabeth — a far more nuanced, original, and fascinating character — is too often relegated to looking anxious as she ponders how to appease and put a leash on her rebellious husband. The season opens with a trio of Philip-centric episodes, the middle of which is perhaps at its most exciting when Philip and his shipmates on a royal world tour compete in a beard-growing competition, and it feels as if The Crown has been hijacked by its least compelling figure, simply because he threw another tantrum over being marginalized. Philip again takes over for most of the season’s final two hours, which include extensive flashbacks to his troubled childhood and more tumult in the Windsor marriage, and it’s no better than the opening chapters. This will be Foy’s last turn in the role — Olivia Colman will take over for the next few seasons as the story jumps forward in time — and it’s a shame she’s so frequently underused before she leaves.
The good news is that Morgan has always defied the annoying “it’s a 10-hour movie” approach in favor of an episodic, Royal Crisis of the Week model (even if you wind up watching the whole thing on a Saturday). On almost any other Netflix drama, you’d be trapped with the Philip/Elizabeth tumult as the chief subject of the entire season, where here it largely goes away for the middle five installments, all of which are significantly livelier and more emotionally complex.
The fourth and seventh hours are spotlights on Margaret and her attempt to avoid spinsterhood with the help of a swinging photographer (Matthew Goode). Episode five has Elizabeth learning to adapt to a changing world that wants a less aloof and robotic queen, while the sixth brings back Alex Jennings as the former King Edward, whose past entanglement with Nazis creates a new headache for his niece (and makes the episode the timeliest of the bunch). And the eighth finds the Royal Family getting to know JFK and Jackie Kennedy (played by Michael C. Hall and Quarry alum Jodi Balfour), with Elizabeth trying not to be outshone by a woman whose own country has started to treat her as something akin to royalty. The lack of a figure of similar dramatic weight to Churchill prevents these episodes from surpassing, or at times equaling, the best that last year had to offer, but they’re still plenty good, that first Margaret showcase in particular.
“Her Majesty has a seemingly impossible task,” one of the queen’s critics suggests in that fifth episode. “She has to be ordinary and extraordinary, touched by divinity and yet one of us. But being ordinary doesn’t have to mean being bland.”
In its first year, The Crown captured that impossible task in a way that never felt bland, even to an agnostic for this type of show like myself. This season is a notable step down from that, and too often I found myself thinking of my usual indifference to the subject matter, rather than what Morgan and company were doing with it.