“The Crown” (2016) is marketed as Netflix’s most ambitious project, and in a sense, it is: the show is rumored to have a production budget of $156 million, a humongous number for any type of series. Additionally, the show is planned to span six seasons, with an alternating cast depicting the life of Queen Elizabeth II in different time periods. This unconventional approach to storytelling is certainly refreshing to viewers, yet it is also a bold move for Netflix as it entails a six-year commitment to the show.
While Netflix had many ambitious projects recently such as “Sense8″ (2015-present) and “The Get Down” (2016), these projects were moderate disappointments for the company in terms of prestige and popularity. Sleeper hits such as “Stranger Things” (2016), “Master of None” (2015-present) and “Orange is the New Black” (2013-present) have more successfully proven Netflix’s victory over television than some of the company’s more ambitious efforts.
“The Crown” has the potential to be great TV. The first season, which was made available to stream on Nov. 4, has a tremendous cast made up of gifted TV alumni as well as some fresh new faces, material for dramatic story arcs that can last for centuries and an excuse to become the most extravagant series on air. The features listed promise the show a successful run, but the show admittedly lacks the originality needed to be considered groundbreaking.
The first episode centers on King George VI more than Queen Elizabeth II herself. Jared Harris, who most notably played one of the greatest characters in “Mad Men” (2007-2015), shines throughout the episode as a power-hungry king suffering from illness. Harris is known for making bitter characters easy to sympathize with, an effect not lost in his interpretation of King George VI. George VI’s childish tantrums and smoking habits make him a difficult person to like, yet his illness and his ultimate acceptance of it are quite moving. While viewers most likely won’t see Harris in later episodes, it is safe to say that his portrayal of the king is the highlight of the premiere.
Other cast members give similarly solid performances. Matt Smith is the perfect choice for the alpha-male Prince Philip; it’ll be entertaining to see his character’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth II during her reign. Lead Claire Foy is largely unknown for the viewers, yet her performance as Anne Boleyn in BBC miniseries “Wolf Hall” (2015) proves that she is indeed a very promising actress. Her naïve, obedient portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is certainly surprising, but that is precisely the point. It is hinted that we will see a major change in her character in upcoming episodes.
John Lithgow is unrecognizable as iconic British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill. It is admittedly a difficult job to portray Churchill, as he is one of the most prominent figures of British politics, yet Lithgow’s performance so far has been satisfactory. By adding a certain nuance to his performance, Lithgow prevents Churchill from being a caricature.
Even if the show does not turn out to fulfill the network’s expectations in terms of award recognition, one thing is for sure: The series will win many prizes for costume design. Since the show follows the lives of the royal family (i.e. super wealthy people), it does not hesitate to spend a lot of money on stunning clothes from the era. Every dress and accessory, particularly the ensembles of Queen Elizabeth II, is worth looking at. It is interesting how, years before Kate Middleton, the queen herself was a fashion inspiration for many young British women.
Because “The Crown” centers on the royal family, it has all the necessary drama for a period piece. In addition to Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, viewers will surely enjoy plotlines involving the Queen’s relationship with Churchill as well as Princess Margaret’s extra-marital affair.
Overall, “The Crown” is entertaining and smart enough to be considered quality TV. However, whether or not it will fulfill expectations is still up in the air. Fans of “Upstairs, Downstairs” (1971)-type of British period pieces will surely love “The Crown,” and it’ll be interesting to see the direction the show will take in later seasons.