Surely Netflix’s The Crown is a TV milestone — here’s a bingeworthy show about Elizabeth II, the purposefully unexciting British monarch whose existence has been guided, almost unyieldingly and for more than half a century, by a conservative belief that her chief duty is to not upset the apple cart.
There’s a reason no one has ever pitched a series called Breaking Badly with Tradition.
Yet Crown is wonderful history, bustling, gripping and gossipy (and consider: season 1 stops in 1955, years before Diana’s rogue adventures). But the show is also highly respectful of the principled Elizabeth as she learns to suss out her wily prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), copes with her ambitious but cloddish husband, Philip (Matt Smith), and drifts apart from her fun-loving, romantically feckless sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby).
Crown was created by Peter Morgan, the author of two acclaimed “Elizabethan” vehicles for Helen Mirren: The 2006 movie The Queen, which won Mirren the best actress Oscar (and arguably played a role in restoring Buckingham Palace’s reputation after Princess Diana’s death), and the play The Audience, which won her the Tony in 2015. He clearly has great empathy for this particular monarch, and he and his team have managed to shape the show around — and breathe sharp life into — a potentially vexing dramatic irony: His heroine, time and again, is forced by law and tradition to uphold the status quo, to stay rooted in place, to do nothing but fold one hand over the other and tell other people, in effect, “Fugetaboutit.”
This applies to matters both of great public import (Margaret’s desire to marry the divorced Peter Townsend, a match Elizabeth is depicted as initially supporting) and small (her preference — again, initially — to select a junior staff member over a senior one for her secretary). Elizabeth doesn’t necessarily choose to be the killjoy of the realm, but she feels she has no choice: She’s ever mindful of that 1936 calamity, the Duke of Windsor’s abdication, and she’s constantly being kept in line by the row of pecking ducks who are her elders. “Never let them see the real Elizabeth Windsor,” Churchill instructs her before she goes off on a world tour. “Let them look at you and see … only the eternal.”
You know it’s only a matter of time in the course of these 10 episodes before the Corgis come on the scene. After a while you do want the poor woman to have some nice, uncomplaining company.
Foy, as Elizabeth, is crucial to making Crown work: The actress showed a similar observational alertness as the doomed (and ruthlessly clever) Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, but here she displays a quick, quiet, enduring, encompassing poise. It’s like watching a grain of sand, stuck inside an oyster, grow into an enormous pearl.
The entire cast is terrific, but Jared Harris deserves special praise as Elizabeth’s forlorn papa, George VI, who more or less excuses himself from the palace in order to take up residence in a grave in Westminster Abbey. It’s a performance of tremendous reserve and sadness and, for that matter, much more moving than Colin Firth’s George in The King’s Speech.
“Uneasy lies the head” and all that.
The Crown begins streaming Friday on Netflix.