Saturday, February 4, 2017

MTVP Binges Out: "The Crown" Season One

Welcome to a new series where we will discuss our impressions of a show after binge watching it . . . guess the title was pretty self-explanatory after all!

Netflix’s “The Crown” has the distinction, at a cost of about $130 million for the first season, of being the most expensive television production ever, just barely edging out “Game of Thrones.” It is definitely money well spent, however, as the production details and scenery are truly exquisite. The show’s first season, available for watching on Netflix right now, depicts the final years of the reign of George VI and the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II. The show really revolves around the young Elizabeth, who has to find her own way with a burden she never asked for and never should have had to bear in the first place. The show does a good job of dramatizing historical events and also giving viewers insight to the personal drama within the royal family. All of this makes for ten episodes of extremely watchable, almost addictive television.

The creative team plays with several different tones throughout the series. Early episodes focus on George VI’s final years and the formative years of Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Elizabeth’s life is somewhat carefree at first, as she, Philip, and their two oldest children, Charles and Anne, live in Malta for Philp’s naval career. Always looming, however, is the knowledge that one day Elizabeth will be Queen. George VI’s health is failing (his family knows he is sick, but I don’t think they realize quite how bad it is), and he starts doing things like showing Elizabeth the red box of important correspondence, and how he always reads it back to front. Because the important stuff Parliament doesn’t actually want him to know about is always in the back. Several episodes in, the inevitable happens, and Elizabeth has to push through her grief to immediately be the stabilizing presence her country requires. Throughout the rest of the season, we see her grow into her new role.

There’s a healthy mix of historical and family drama throughout the season. We get to see the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, the death of King George VI and the ascension of Elizabeth, several national security crises, and the political intrigue of Winston Churchill’s second term as Prime Minister. On the family side, we see King George VI’s final days play out, and we also see the strain that Elizabeth’s ascension put on her marriage with Philip. While most of what you read about Prince Philip emphasizes how he’s been such a major source of support for Elizabeth through the years, we learn from “The Crown” that growing into that role wasn’t easy. It was unusual at the time for a man to take such a secondary role to his wife. Philip bristled at always having to walk several paces behind Elizabeth, and he always desperately wanted to be given something to do of real substance. And of course there’s Princess Margaret, whose relationship with the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend was tabloid fodder for the masses.

One thing I found really interesting was how Elizabeth felt her education had failed her. She was very schooled in British constitutional law, particularly the duties of the monarchy, but not much else. She had (and still has) a passion for dogs and horses, and she could talk to anyone about that, but once the conversation ranged a bit broader, she felt dreadfully inadequate. Here she was, with no traditional schooling (because it wasn’t considered necessary) trying to keep up with some of the most educated men in the UK. I’m not sure how close to historically accurate this is, but at least in the show, Elizabeth hires herself a tutor to try and make up for the education she was denied. I would bet, given the length of her reign, there is no one more schooled in politics than she is. She had a great teacher, after all. Winston Churchill was the first Prime Minister of her reign, and we see in the show how he tried to show her the ropes while still respecting her station. By the end of the season, he feels his own health failing, and he sees that Elizabeth is ready to fly on his own, and so he finally resigns.

I think my favorite episode of the season was the fourth, entitled “Act of God.” There’s a terrible smog that hangs over London for days and threatens the lives of people with respiratory problems. The way the episode is shot, you can just feel the claustrophobia the smog causes the residents of London. Churchill doesn’t act quickly enough and receives a (rightful) media flogging for it. The story is also made more personal as we follow one of the women who works in Churchill’s office as she tries to help her roommate, who is especially suffering from the smog. She gets hit by a bus (the driver of which presumably couldn’t see well thanks to the fog) and dies, and this is what makes Churchill finally wake up and start trying to do something about the situation (other than encouraging the continual burning of coal to help the economy, of course). Churchill survives this one politically, but there was plenty of intrigue before we get to that point, as members of the government who are concerned about the smog try to go rogue. How timely this episode feels now. Do we learn nothing from history?

There were some fantastic casting choices for the first season. My understanding is that the creative team will consider recasting all the roles for season three, but for depicting the early days of Elizabeth’s reign, I think they hit it out of the park. Matt Smith, AKA the Eleventh Doctor, plays Prince Philip. I’ve always been rather luke-warm on Smith’s Doctor, except for the odd episode where he was able to show more warmth like “The Lodger” or “The Doctor’s Wife,” but he inhabits the role of Prince Philip with distinction. I can feel his frustration at not being able to do more with his life (although as a woman trying to make a career in a good ole boys club, I don’t have a ton of sympathy). He also hits that mix of duty and goofiness that personifies the Philip we know today. I also quite enjoyed seeing John Lithgow as Churchill take on something so different from the comedic roles he is most known for. Claire Foy, while I had never heard of her before, also portrayed a very believable Elizabeth, torn by continually having to choose duty over family life.

Every bit of that record-setting budget can be seen on screen. The landscapes are absolutely beautiful (a plot where the Queen Mother goes to the coast of Scotland especially comes to mind), and the setting are ornate. Reading up on the British Royal Family is a bit of a hobby of mine, so this show overall was right up my alley. I feel like it kind of picks up where “The King’s Speech” leaves off. If you’ve seen that film, you will probably be familiar with many of the players, especially in the early episodes. The historical drama aspect kept my brain working as I watched, and the addictive family drama kept me coming back for more episodes.

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