God save “The Crown,” if you’re not too busy.
Now entering its fifth of six planned seasons, Netflix’s juggernaut of a royal soap opera, which follows the long reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, doesn’t appear on the surface like a show that needs saving. Indeed, there are few TV shows without CGI dragons or spaceships that can muster the kind of scrutiny and interest “The Crown” generates.
But much like the British royal family in the 1990s, the series is beginning to show some cracks.
The new season of “The Crown” (streaming Wednesday, ★★ out of four), which covers this tumultuous time in the Windsor clan, is more fine than good, blandly agreeable rather than stirringly risk-taking. Now on its third cast of actors playing the major royal roles – including Imelda Staunton as Elizabeth, Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip, Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana – the series has the unenviable task of reinventing itself. But it also has to continue the saga of the Charles and Diana begun in Season 4 and start a path to conclude a story that didn’t end in real life until just two months ago, when the Queen died at age 96. And in the wake of her death, “The Crown” is also attempting to create entertainment out of the royal family without offending too much. And in touchy times, people are easily offended.
It’s a lot for any one piece of art to accomplish, and creator Peter Morgan does his level best to serve many masters in the 10 new episodes (all filmed long before the Queen’s death). But the discombobulated series has lost the thread of storytelling that hooked so many viewers and critics for the first four seasons. It’s a shame that, just as the real story is more eventful and nuanced, “The Crown” falls ever duller and flatter.
Revenge dress to royal divorce:What to know about ‘The Crown’ Season 5
The season begins in the early 1990s to introduce the audience to the older actors in their new roles: Elizabeth is trying to cling to the vestiges of her monarchy; Charles is feuding with both his wife and mother; Philip is seeking new adventure; and Diana is trapped in a life that is draining. Future episodes will cover memorable moments from the decade, including Charles’ leaked phone call with his lover Camilla Parker-Bowles (Olivia Williams), a fire at Windsor Castle, explosive TV interviews from both Charles and Diana and, of course, the couple’s separation and eventual divorce.
The new episodes often feel haphazardly stitched together, leaving out major context and character development. The new actors either choose simple impersonations (Debicki and Staunton) or, like Pryce, make choices that don’t resemble the former actors in their roles, creating the impression that they’re acting in different shows. They give serviceable performances, although some of the actors (also Pryce) are woefully miscast. But none of them are magnetic; they struggle to keep the audience in thrall the way the real royals did for the public.
Many, particularly in the U.K., want Netflix to add further disclaimers to the series assuring the audience it is a work of fiction and not historical fact. Producers have no real motivation to do that on any piece of historical fiction – no series like “The Crown” or “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” claims to be a documentary, after all – that tension between fact and fantasy feels ever present in the new episodes.
Perhaps the best scene in the new season is one in Episode 9 that is surely all conjecture, in which a slightly wistful Charles shows up on Diana’s doorstep after their divorce has been finalized and they conduct a post mortem on their relationship. No one but Charles and Diana themselves could say if that really happened, but in that moment there is no desire to race to Wikipedia to confirm or deny that scene; West and Debicki really get to act, instead of recreating news clips. Only then does Morgan’s heavy-handed symbolism and metaphor succeed, and the story treats them as people and not prince and princess. The crown jewels are just this show’s version of dragons: glittery sideshows that must be backed up by real character and story.
Those few great moments are undercut by Morgan’s awareness of his series’ place in modern history. An earlier, Charles-focused episode ends with a scene and message that could best be described as propaganda for the new king.
It’s not clear who season 5 of “The Crown” is for except perhaps for Morgan himself, an obsessive royal dramatist. Is it a soap opera about one extraordinary divorce between people who never should have been married? Is it a historical record? Is it a narrative or collection of moments? Is it playing for an audience obsessed with the royals or one that knows little about them?
The correct answer is not “all of the above.” Because in trying to be everything for everyone, the new season ends up being almost nothing for no one: Shiny jewels and posh accents without much underneath.
'The Crown' Season 5 review: Charles and Diana season loses luster – USA TODAY
God save “The Crown,” if you’re not too busy.