Think of it as a Downtown Abbey sequel, only less cheerful.
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It’s always trial and error finding a new series to watch, and it’s getting harder and harder for me to click the “watch now” button and actually commit to playing the first 15 minutes of a “season 1 episode 1” despite it getting a “97% match” on Netflix. I’m a huge fan of historical dramas, but so many are badly done that I’m always skeptical and easily disillusioned. I toyed around the edges of this one, and considered trying the PBS Victoria series instead, since at least it was 19th century and thus more “historical” rather than modern, but I finally gave this one a try and I haven’t been disappointed. I’m already into the 2nd season, so it’s clearly going to keep my interest, and needless to say it’s thoughtfully written, visually well crafted and has some great performances and complex character interactions. I can’t say that I’m particularly enthralled with British history per se, but when a drama effectively uses plot and character development as a way to explore historical events and give them context it kind of doesn’t matter what the setting is. After thoroughly enjoying Downton Abbey and loudly proclaiming to anyone that would listen that it was by far the best dramatic series ever produced for television, every other series became a let down by comparison. I began watching any PBS/BBC period drama that I could find just to try and recapture the glory that was Downton Abbey, but most just couldn’t live up to my unfair and unrealistic expectations.
There were a few that I enjoyed and held my attention such as The Crimson Field, which was a WWI field hospital drama from 2014 and is available on Amazon Prime, but was cancelled after one season. I also tried many others such as Mr. Selfridge and Poldark, but none of them held my interest enough to watch more than an episode or two. I have to admit that my appetite for anything related to British history was rapidly waning, but after I finally clicked on The Crown it’s been thoroughly renewed. In some ways The Crown is like a modern sequel to Downton Abbey in that it vaguely follows the story arc of the waning former glory of the patriarchal British aristocratic system as it is dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. The resulting story can be somewhat tragic as we follow the specific royal family dramas of each of its most prominent members. It also similarly contrasts the lives of the nobility with those of the more “common” people by emphasizing the tension between the royal family and the elected government officials and their staff. My favorite character in Season 1 is the aging Winston Churchill played with both humor and arrogant bluster by John Lithgow.
What really makes this show worth watching, and is also perhaps why I see a connection to Downton Abbey, is how the series cleverly weaves together the stories of very different characters through certain specific historical events. Each episode tends to focus more on one character or another and uses their particular circumstances to drive the story forward and make a point. Their particular conflict tends to mirror the larger theme of how the Crown has to adapt to various assaults on its relevance by the forces of modernity. Many of the stories relate to the incredibly antiquated views on marriage and divorce, and allow us to feel sympathy for even some of the more despicable characters, such as the Duke of Windsor.
In fact, some of the more notable episodes revolve around the Duke of Windsor, the former king who abdicated the throne and has a particularly nasty habit of trying to ingratiate himself to members of the royal family while trash-talking them to his wife and others. Elizabeth always keeps him at arms length, but once she learns the full truth about how he truly was (is) a Nazi sympathizer she shuts him down once and for all, but never directly, always with the subtle silence you would expect from a royal sovereign. No one in England can abide by a Nazi in the late 50’s.
I could go on and on about how each few episodes are like a separate miniseries, and how I end up poring over multiple linked Wikipedia pages on various events and people from the story, but I’d rather simply say that it’s worth watching if you want something that’s both entertaining and deep enough that you can really sink your teeth into. Give it a try!