Monday, November 21, 2016

Thoughts on The Crown

I am now eight episodes into Netflix's newest, most ambitious affair The Crown, and wanted to start sharing some of my thoughts on the series.  The show, one I was planning on waiting until Thanksgiving to watch but for reasons that have suddenly escaped me, I decided I should commence right now (perhaps it's the fact that the discs I have home from Netflix currently are all less-than-impressive looking movies), and so I've binged through the first episodes.  Here are my thoughts on this handsome production thusfar.

1. It's Terribly Beautiful

The show cost a fortune (at $130 million, it's the most expensive series ever made), but it looks it.  It's impossible to imagine the series not gaining every Art Direction and Costume Design Emmy it can lay its hands upon, and with good reason.  The series is meticulous in its detailing, from the pristine walls of Buckingham Palace and Clarence House (we don't get that repeat set situation where we're always in the same rooms, a trick so common in TV), to the gigantic plains of Africa or the wide-open fields surrounding Sandringham.

This pays off in a lot of ways-you don't really have to imagine being a part of this world-it's there for you.  There's a lavishness in seeing two-story tall rooms, bedecked in Old Master paintings, simply flung about, and seeming real enough that if they're using a green screen, they also deserve a Visual Effects Emmy.  This critical eye for detail is something that I'd missed from television in general, but particularly with Netflix, whose business model didn't really lend itself to having such a lavish, intense series of homes.  For this alone, you should at least give the first episode a shot-I want more detailed and vibrant sets like this for actors to play with in television.

2. History is a Problem

My biggest problem with biopics, which is what this is even if it unfolds more like a Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire, is that you know exactly what's going to happen, a problem in particular for a story that's so incredibly famous, and still going for several characters we're introduced to onscreen (Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip both still being alive).  The series hasn't quite gotten to the point where it is riveting television even if we already know what happens, a problem most historical epics face but since this is a television series rather than a motion picture, one where you have to keep coming back, it's a bigger problem.

Forget, for example, the two main characters, and simply look at some side performances.  Any student of history, for example, knows that Churchill survives until 1955 as Prime Minister, and is of course succeeded by his rival on the program Anthony Eden, or that Princess Margaret's romance with Peter Townsend will end in a disaster that badly damaged her relationship with her sister.  Knowing this means that writer Peter Morgan needs to find different tactics to skate through issues that are obvious to any fan of the Royal Family, and he hasn't quite gotten there yet.  He succeeded in The Queen ten years ago in part because he showed us a side of a woman we hadn't considered, but in the years since much ink has been spilled over QEII and as she has aged, she's become significantly more beloved so seeing her inner-turmoil isn't quite as revolutionary as it was when Helen Mirren brought it about in Morgan's first interaction with the monarch.

3. The Acting is Okay So Far

I will admit that I haven't been particularly wowed by the acting as well as the writing.  There are exceptions here-Eileen Atkins is winning as the frosty Queen Mary, even if she could do this in her sleep, and I love Matt Smith's take on Prince Philip, a caddish brute who is still somehow quite charming (easily the cast's MVP), but the rest of the cast is hit-or-miss.  Claire Foy doesn't adopt Mirren's sense of inner-world, truly playing her queen as more vacant than someone struggling with the ornateness around her, and Lithgow's Churchill is too hard to read, though Lithgow, he of the thespian roots, lands all of the jokes and embellished speeches to the nation.

I will admit I'm only eight episodes in, but the acting is also hampered, as is the writing, by the truth.  It's worth noting that while there are embellishments, they aren't of the kind that is easy to disprove and hardly add to the best elements of the show to give the actors more to do.  For example, thus far we have yet to interact with Prince Philip's famed wandering eye other than a sideways glance on a plane, something that his son clearly emulated, probably out of necessity to stay in good company with the Royal Family (these are alleged affairs, after all), but it also makes for so many of the characters to be rather dull.  Even stories that are more within the confines of a traditional television series (say, Princess Margaret's affair with Peter Townsend), are given short shift and so little is known of these two characters it's hard to see this progressing to much more than a couple of episodes of drama.  This is partially the fault of Netflix (they don't know how people will react or grow with a character, still the greatest flaw in the binge process), but also with the writing and acting-it feels too plain, and not in a good way where we're naturally building to something-we know how history works, and we know the history of every major character-where is the excitement in stretching this out?

4. This Has an Anthology Feel...And Aren't We Tired of Anthologies?

Listen, when American Horror Story decided to bring back the anthology, I was all on-board.  I thought, first off, that Ryan Murphy finally found a TV format that actually worked for him and wasn't doomed to failure, and that this would be a way to create a twisty, fun approach to television where you're not entirely certain how things will turn out in the end.

That being said, it's now transformed from a great plot twist to a crutch for lazy television writers, and I worry that The Crown may in some ways borrow from it.  After all, part of the appeal in television is watching the same actors grow over the course of multiple years in the same roles, slowly watching the way that they inhabit characters and suddenly find places in those people we didn't know could exist.  Think of the empowered, emboldened way Elisabeth Moss drove Peggy Olson or the fascinating way that Josh Holloway found humanity in the initially one-note Sawyer on Lost.  There's something that's powerful about knowing that a series of actors are going to be centered around the same plot for a number of years-you get to see evolution in acting and invest more emotionally into the series.

That's a problem with The Crown which moves at a ridiculously quick clip, to the point where it's hard to imagine Matt Smith and Claire Foy playing the characters past the birth of Prince Edward without too much reliance on greying temples and prosthetic bags under their eyes.  Knowing this, it feels like the characters themselves won't have the same level of consistency, which is hard to stomach since some of the more interesting aspects of Queen Elizabeth's life, particularly those in the 1980's and early 1990's, are several seasons away.  By then, we'd rely on a more age appropriate Emma Thompson to take on the role, but there's no one who will be able to perfectly mirror what Foy and Smith are doing (even if I'm not all that impressed with the former so far), and so it just becomes a series of interpretations, rather than a comprehensive series.  Considering the investment on Netflix's behalf, this is disappointing that they couldn't get something that might end up being something comprehensive and wonderful, rather than potentially disjointed.

5. So...Do I Come Back for a Second Season?

It seems apparent given the hubbub of the show that a second season is going to happen-Netflix has only so many massive hits to be able to hang onto, after all-but will I return?  I definitely will finish out the final two episodes-I like to see where these binges take me.  However, I'm not going to stick around if it doesn't improve slightly in terms of story or acting.

There are moments that feel, especially as the show has gone forward, more interesting and key character struggles that history might not inform that I've liked.  The Queen Mother, for example, feels vastly underused.  She was trained to literally be a queen, and then has to watch as her daughter takes her out during her prime, or the strangely marvelous scenes involving the Duke of Windsor.  I thought the scene where he's got a room he goes into to reflect on his brief series of months as a god amongst men, and the way that he reminds people that he too was once a god, constantly reminding himself out loud that he gave all of this up for love (even if, occasionally, one wonders if he questioned that decision), was the best of the series.  But these moments are too far-and-in-between, and Claire Foy's queen is too central and by-far the least interesting character in the series so far, constantly buckling and frustratingly unknowing, even in quiet reflections.  It's not often you stick with a series that doesn't know how to present its main character, and so I will probably need something a bit more exhilarating or tantalizing to happen with her before I sign up for another go-around.  Still, the costumes, sets, and Matt Smith are all wonderful, and there's definitely promise in these episodes for something magnificent.

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