The Netflix juggernaut of a royal soap opera, which chronicles the lengthy reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and is currently in its fifth of six planned seasons, doesn’t initially seem like a program that needs saving. There aren’t many TV series that can attract the level of attention and excitement that “The Crown” does without using CGI dragons or spaceships.
But the show is starting to show cracks, just like the British royal family did in the 1990s.
The latest season of “The Crown,” which covers this turbulent time in the Windsor family and premieres on Wednesday out of four, is blandly palatable rather than stirringly risk-taking. The series now has the difficult burden of reinventing itself with its third set of actors playing the principal royal roles, including Imelda Staunton as Elizabeth, Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip, Dominic West as Prince Charles, and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana. But it also needs to carry on the story of Charles and Diana that was started in Season 4 and pave the way to wrap up a tale that didn’t come to a close in reality until the Queen’s passing at age 96 two months ago. In the wake of her passing, “The Crown” is also attempting to make light of the royal family while avoiding offending too many people. Furthermore, individuals are easily insulted at sensitive times.
It takes a lot for one work of art to accomplish this, and in the 10 new episodes (all of which were shot before the Queen’s passing), creator Peter Morgan does his utmost to please a variety of masters. However, the disjointed show has forgotten the narrative arc that captivated so many viewers and critics for the first four seasons. It’s unfortunate that “The Crown” becomes duller and flatter while the real narrative becomes more complex and exciting.
The first episode of the season takes place in the early 1990s to introduce the audience to the older actors in their new roles: Elizabeth is fighting to preserve her monarchy; Charles is at odds with both his wife and mother; Philip is looking for new experiences, and Diana is shackled in a life that is draining. A fire at Windsor Castle, dramatic TV interviews from both Charles and Diana, the couple’s separation and eventual divorce, and Charles’ leaked phone call with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Olivia Williams) are just a few of the famous events from the decade that will be covered in upcoming episodes.
The character development and important background are sometimes missing from the new episodes, which frequently feel hastily put together. The new performers either make decisions that don’t resemble the prior actors in their roles, like Pryce, or that do, giving the appearance that they are playing in distinct shows (Debicki and Staunton). Despite several of the actors’ (including Pryce’s) egregiously poor casting decisions, they deliver respectable performances. However, none of them are captivating, and they fail to hold the public’s attention the way the actual royals did.
Many people, especially in the U.K., want Netflix to add more disclaimers to the series to reassure viewers that it is fiction rather than historical reality. Since no historical fiction series, such as “The Crown” or “Dahmer: Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” professes to be a documentary, producers have no practical incentive to accomplish it. Nevertheless, the tension between reality and fiction feels constant in the new episodes.
The episode 9 sequence, in which a somewhat depressed Charles appears on Diana’s doorstep after their divorce is finalized and they conduct a postmortem on their relationship, is without a doubt the best scene in the current season. There is no rush to rush to Wikipedia to confirm or disprove that scene; West and Debicki actually get to act, rather than reenacting news snippets.
Only Charles and Diana could know for sure if that actually happened. The novel portrays them as people and not as princes and princesses until Morgan’s overbearing symbolism and metaphor succeed. The show’s equivalent of dragons, the crown jewels, are glitzy sideshows that demand a compelling character and plot to support them.
The fact that Morgan is aware of where his series stands in modern history undermines those few outstanding moments. A scene and message at the end of an earlier show about Charles could be called propaganda for the new king or queen.
The audience for season 5 of “The Crown” is unclear, with the possible exception of Morgan, an obnoxious royal dramatist. Is it a soap opera about a singular, egregious divorce involving two individuals who never ought to have been hitched? Is it a document from the past? Is it a story or a compilation of incidents? Is it aiming its performances at a royal-obsessed or uninitiated audience?
“All of the above” is not the right response. Because the new season tries to be everything to everyone, it ends up being nearly nothing to nobody: glitzy diamonds and aristocratic accents with little else.