(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: The Crown
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: A dramatic series that chronicles the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II, with each season covering roughly a decade of her life and the entire cast being replaced with different actors every two seasons to mark the passage of time. It’s all very glossy, very expensive, and so much more enthralling than it may sound.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: If your eyes glazed over a bit reading that The Crown is a glossy costume drama about English royals…look, I don’t blame you. I was hesitant to dive into this series at first, despite the talent in front of the camera and behind it, expecting some kind of awards bait without much bite or meat. And I judged a book by its cover like a moron. Because The Crown may appear to be a stuffy TV show about monarchy, but it’s actually as vital and alive as any prestige TV show being made today. It’s addictive and powerful in equal measure, finding avenues in which to explore these potentially stodgy historical figures in ways that resonate down to the bone.
The Crown has a lot going for it, but chief among them is how creator/showrunner Peter Morgan and his writers structure each season. This series avoids the pitfall of so many Netflix shows by refusing to feel like a long movie split into chapters. Rather, each episode of The Crown is its own self-contained short story, lingering on a single major event or tying several storylines together. The result is more like Mad Men than many other streaming shows – each episode is a full meal, structured to begin and end with a thematic resonance that makes each hour feel complete. You want to binge it not because you want to know what happens next, but because you know each hour will deliver the goods, entertaining and illuminating and breaking your heart without spinning its wheels.
And The Crown does that delivering of the goods a lot. Like a lot a lot. Its greatest trick is taking these monolithic features – Queen Elizabeth herself, her husband Prince Philip, her children and her siblings and her advisors and enemies – and digging deep into what makes them tick, examining their private and public decisions with an unflinching eye. The strange meta-narrative of The Crown suggests that my initial opposition to this series, that it would be stodgy and boring and fixated on people who already get enough headlines, is the result of decades of inner-turmoil and human pain. The characters in The Crown fight every day to maintain the illusion that their lives, and their power, are consistent, steady, and a slave to tradition. The series, via its incredible actors and powerful writing, invites us to witness these people tearing themselves apart as their humanity, their need to be a sister or a mother or a friend, battles their need to represent the institution into which they were born.
And because The Crown is a show made with great care (and goodness gracious, does it look expensive), it’s all very exciting and frequently very funny. The Crown is not a show about royalty, but a show about people trapped by the duties of royalty. They long for escape from the very institution that grants them so much power.
I’ll be the first to admit that the cast shifting mentioned above can feel a little weird at times. I sometimes still miss Claire Foy from the first two seasons, even though newly-crowned Oscar winner Olivia Colman is phenomenal in season 3 (season 4 premieres later this month). And Tobias Menzies is terrific as Prince Philip, but there’s something inherently enigmatic about Matt Smith’s take on the character that can’t be replicated with such ease. And yet, the re-casting still feels like the right choice. Rather than plaster young actors in make-up, the series leans into the change. As we age, we become different people. We fail to recognize ourselves as we become further embedded within the world in which we belong, or the world in which we’re trapped. The Crown is a show about change: society, government, and nations. But it’s mostly about how people change, and how we can’t do anything to stop it.
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