This review is based on the entire first season.
Production values run high within Netflix’s new blockbuster series The Crown, with everything from opulent operating rooms to the sunny waves of Malta providing the backdrop to the show’s royal drama. Centering on the cancer-stricken fall of King George VI, and subsequent rise to power of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown isn’t too far removed from other similarly themed period pieces.
But while Netflix’s series feels unsurprising – the opening hours especially have long, languid stretches – it also revels in the deep pockets of the company’s production department to fascinatingly gorgeous ends. With the added bonus of creator Peter Morgan’s understated writing, the ultimate result is a slow burn of a show that’s entirely worth checking out for anyone interested in this kind of detail-rich historical drama.
The slowly unfolding machinations of the British Monarchy in the mid-20th Century provide the skeleton to the series, beginning with the bloodied handrags of King George VI (Jared Harris) and, according to some reports online, ultimately ending in the present day after six seasons of ten episodes each. For now, season 1 is an introduction and study of King George VI’s successor, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), who begins taking on small duties of her father as his heir presumptive after George realizes his spotty cough might be caused by something other than the cold weather.
Those circling the family include Elizabeth’s new husband Philip (Matt Smith), her sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Margaret’s secret lover Peter (Ben Miles), and newly elected United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow). The first episode sets up myriad subplots, from Churchill’s ascension in the Monarchy to King George VI’s secret health crisis, to Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage and honeymoon period, and the show accomplishes all of this with the same tenants of its royal characters: it’s graceful, but occasionally stiff.
The grace comes from the aforementioned direction and cinematography, which packs wallops in small doses (that bespeckled operating room, a few gloomy shots of a mist-strewn Buckingham Palace) and climbs to the top of Netflix’s pile of original series in terms of sheer visual appeal. Netflix, apparently, spent an arm and a leg on making the show as true-to-history as possible, and I’d say not a dime went to waste. The show knows how to grip when it wants to as well (history buffs may be a little more ahead of the game, admittedly), creating tense moments, particularly at the end of episode 1, from otherwise largely innocuous events.
Unfortunately, some of those largely innocuous events can be a slog. Similar in spirit to Netflix’s Marco Polo, The Crown is lavishly drawn, but sometimes gets lost in its own muddled drama. On the one hand, the show doesn’t hold your hand and assumes you’re smart enough to keep up with all of the plentiful characters, time jumps, and politics during your inevitable Netflix binge. Yet, on the other hand, that lack of direct insight into exactly who some people are can frustrate the show’s early hours. Like Marco Polo, the more you stick with The Crown‘s deliberate storytelling, the easier it is to go along with Morgan’s vision.
A lot on that rides on the jittery shoulders of the apprehensive heir-in-waiting at the show’s center. Foy is appropriately delightful as the young Queen, and she gets to do and say a lot – as a proper Queen should – without saying much herself. As Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) states after Elizabeth’s wedding, a match not many in the government supported, “She turned us all on our heads, and barely opened her mouth in the process.” Foy fills the role with the quiet power it needs, and manages to feel like a true progenitor of the real Elizabeth in the process.
Her story also reverberates nicely in 2016, looking back at the issues and early criticism she fought as a woman rising to power, and the men who dictated her rule. Morgan takes the intimately personal approach to depicting the royal family, and it’s consistently intriguing to see the mistakes, successes, and power grabs that built an entire society, all tangibly believable in retrospect. The opening scene of a grand, poised King George VI hacking up bloody vomit into a toilet is weirdly on point for a show aiming to explain how the bricks of the modern Monarchy were stacked with personal strife.
If The Crown doesn’t reach those shocking heights all-too-often, it at least stays seriously true to its historical characters throughout. The show, in its best moments, is a perfect mix of pristine elegance and soap opera schlock, all while finding ways to string along its bingeing Netflix subjects through to the next slowly unfurling royal crisis. Although its weaker subplots further hamper a simmering series (Margaret and Peter’s affair is a dud), when The Crown has the full force of its best features at the forefront – beautiful locations, winning actors, sly dialogue – it’s one of the best things you can get lost in among Netflix’s steadily overwhelming crop of original content.
It can't help but feel languid in a sea of otherwise lightning-fast TV, but that might entice viewers to The Crown, which is slow and stiff at times but also handsomely crafted and bursting at the seams with fine performances.