Thanks to Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s engagement, 2017 was a gift to Americans who treat the British royal family like a particularly delicious soap opera. Netflix, of course, has the good fortune to actually be producing a soap opera on that subject, and the wisdom to release it at the beginning of December, when the weather is colder, the year starts feeling its age and the rest of us require a balm, or at least a guilty pleasure, for our weary hearts.
“The Crown” was very much welcome in its second season, full of gorgeous vistas, enviable clothes and fabulous facial expressions. But the season also was an illustration of how a show’s rigid format can hamper its storytelling, boxing in its characters as much as their royal roles can.
Theoretically, Netflix ought to be the perfect location for a show like “The Crown,” in which seasons and even episodes can cover several years at a jump, roles are intended to be recast and the vista is long. Without the constraints of a network or cable season, “The Crown” ought to be able to vary the number of episodes in each season, and to play more dramatically with the length of each individual episode, as plenty of other Netflix shows have done, though often for worse.
But “The Crown” is also quite expensive to produce – the two seasons so far have cost an estimated $130 million, a large sum for a series without special effects (not counting those gorgeous reproduction tiaras) – and so the series seems to be proceeding at a stately, predictable pace: 10 episodes per season, each running about an hour. And in the second season, that’s simply not enough to get done everything “The Crown” is trying to do.
This is especially true for the plot that ought to be the spine of the season: the journey of Philip (Matt Smith), the Duke of Edinburgh, away from his wife, Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), and his discovery that he still loves her and wants to do the job of supporting her – if she’ll still have him.
The first half of this is handled well enough, especially after the seeds sewn in the first season: Philip may be petulant about a bargain about which he ought to have been fairly clear-eyed, but his adventures at sea are the rare opportunity to see what he’s good at and why he thrived in the navy, and how badly he misses having a comparable role and mission. But though “The Crown” gets Philip back to England, it doesn’t quite leave time for him to make the emotional round trip.
There are steps forward for the couple, among them Elizabeth’s decision to stand firm about the duke of Windsor’s (Alex Jennings) Nazi affiliations and her assertive foxtrot with President Nkrumah (Danny Sapani) in Ghana. But there are also harsh steps back, most prominently Philip’s insistence that Prince Charles (Julian Baring) attend the boarding school Gordonstoun as an act of marital control and contempt for his son’s weakness.
Smith and Foy almost sell the 10th-episode turn in their relationship on pure force of acting. But “The Crown” undermines them by cramming Philip’s change of heart into a 10th of the season, and having it all hinge on a catty conversation with Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband, Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), about Elizabeth’s political struggles in the wake of the Profumo Affair.
It’s not merely that compressing this major arc so much at the end makes it harder to believe the change of heart between the two characters; it’s that “The Crown” leaves no time for Philip to develop the interests that ultimately seemed to have sustained him as Elizabeth’s consort, among them long-term presidency of the World Wildlife Fund, which merits a single line of dialogue in the entire season.
The rest of the season suffers from the same sense of restriction. Margaret’s marriage to Tony effectively takes place in three hour-long acts: one in which she meets and falls for him; a second in which they marry, her to avoid the humiliation of Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) marrying first, him to tweak his awful mother (Anna Chancellor); and a third, several years later, in which they’ve obviously fallen into bitter recrimination and are avoiding each other even as they expect their second child.
“The Crown” does the same thing to Margaret here that she accuses her sister of doing, shoehorning her in around the margins, fitting in her concerns where they’re convenient to a larger narrative. That’s a shame, not least because the two marriages would have made for a richer contrast had “The Crown” made time to actually allow them to develop.
And the rushed pace also means that certain political storylines, among them the Suez crisis, the economic recovery and the Profumo Affair, rather trail off into nothingness over the course of the season.
“The Crown” can still turn in a terrific, focused episode. Both “Marionettes,” which explores the fallout to Lord Altrincham (John Heffernan), and “Vergangenheit,” which explores the Duke of Windsor’s Nazi apologism, stand with the first-season “Act of God,” about the Great Smog, and “Assassins,” which explored Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), as taught, complete short stories.
But when it comes to serialized stories, “The Crown” is better at following a personal thread than a political one. That’s a shame: Part of what makes for a great soap opera is a series’ ability to use the wider world to enhance the epic scale of private life.