DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
The new season of "The Crown," which tells the ongoing story of the royal family during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is presented Sunday on Netflix. It features a new cast, including Oscar-winner Olivia Colman as Elizabeth. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that while the show has changed in many ways, what hasn't changed is that it's still so good.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I was once visiting Cambridge, England, when I saw crowds pouring into the city center. Joining the throng, I arrived in time to see an immaculately besuited Prince Charles give a speech that celebrated, of all things, the opening of a new supermarket. Watching him feign enthusiasm, I remember thinking, the poor guy spends his whole life doing this stuff, and I walked away grateful that I wasn't a royal.
I suspect many feel the same gratitude watching "The Crown," the plush behind-the-palace-walls hit that may be the most delicious series on television. Created and largely scripted by Peter Morgan, the show's third season drops on Netflix this Sunday, carrying Queen Elizabeth's story into the mid-1960s and '70s. While the essential drama at Buckingham Palace stays the same - it's the tug of war between public rules and private selves - Season 3 has big changes that take a couple of episodes to warm up to.
It's not simply that we're watching once-youthful characters now congealed in cushy, but often disappointing, middle-aged malaise. We must also get used to a superb new cast, with Matt Smith's spiky Prince Philip giving way to Tobias Menzies' more textured annoyance - he's a reservoir of bad advice - and Vanessa Kirby's dazzling Princess Margaret turning into an unhappily married social butterfly, waspishly played by Helena Bonham Carter. Most important, Claire Foy's likeably hesitant Elizabeth has been replaced by a prematurely dowdy queen who, in Olivia Colman's layered performance, has warmed to her job.
Beneath her sometimes lacquered exterior, she's an odd mixture of decency and coldness, cluelessness and ultimate good sense. Making matters still trickier, the show is no longer set in the postwar afterglow dominated by Winston Churchill. Largely ignoring the giddiness of swinging London, Morgan focuses on troubled times. Even as politicians ask whether the monarchy is a waste of time and money, Britain is faced with a shrinking pound sterling, massive strikes, calamitous power cuts and even the threat of a right-wing coup involving national luminaries.
Here, on election day in 1964, Elizabeth watches the news while her husband fans absurd fears of what will happen should Labour's Harold Wilson become prime minister.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")
TOBIAS MENZIES: (As Prince Philip) You do know if that man wins today, they'll want us out.
OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Who?
MENZIES: (As Prince Philip) Wilson. Over half his cabinet would be made up of rabid anti-monarchists who want our heads on spikes. Vive la revolution, except I doubt they speak French in Halifax or Huddersfield - wherever he's from.
JASON WATKINS: (As Harold Wilson, unintelligible).
MENZIES: (As Prince Philip) I even heard a rumor that he's a KGB spy...
COLMAN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Mr. Wilson? That's ridiculous.
MENZIES: (As Prince Philip) ...That his predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell, was poisoned by the Russians so that their man might take over.
COLMAN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Who did you hear that from?
MENZIES: (As Prince Philip) A friend of mine at the lunch club. He had a whole theory about Wilson being turned while on a trade mission to Russia, said he even had a KGB codename - OLDING.
COLMAN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Well, if you know it and your chum knows it, obviously, MI5 will know it, and they must've come to the conclusion Mr. Wilson was fine or they would've done something about it.
MENZIES: (As Prince Philip) Well, unless they never expected him to get this far. No one did.
POWERS: As it happens, ideology proves irrelevant. Over a series of nifty scenes, Elizabeth comes to develop a close relationship with Wilson, slyly played by Jason Watkins, who talks to her forthrightly about governing. She vastly prefers him to his feckless Tory successor Edward Heath, who she finds about as appealing as a tree slug.
"The Crown" gets much of its oomph from filtering historical events through their often-tangential connection to the royal family. Thus, a mining disaster becomes the story of Elizabeth's trouble displaying public empathy, a preview of her PR disaster with Princess Di. Britain's need for an American loan leads to a drunken Princess Margaret spouting dirty limericks to a delighted Lyndon Johnson. And in a sneakily powerful episode, the fear of Welsh nationalism leads the family to uproot Prince Charles, played with great feeling by Josh O'Connor, and ship him to the University of Wales in Aberystwyth to prove the English care.
Along the way, Charles becomes this season's prime sacrificial victim, where his sister Princess Anne, played with star-making assurance by Erin Doherty, listens to David Bowie, enjoys casual flings and addresses the world with biting sarcasm. The touching Charles believes himself a kind of individualistic freethinker, but whether it's his schooling or his love life, he's bulldozed into doing what his chilly, stiff-upper-lip family decides is best for the Crown. His whole purpose in life is to become king when his mother dies. Now 71, he's still in that limbo, more a figure of mockery than sympathy.
"The Crown" is wonderfully entertaining, in part because we don't have to take it all that seriously. Because the throne has no real power, we can enjoy it as a historical soap opera without worrying that things are inaccurate or partisan as we would with a show about, say, the Kennedys or the Trumps. Indeed, one key to the monarchy's allure is that it offers a kind of larger-than-life pop mythology.
In its timeless pageantry and out-of-touch silliness, "The Crown" transcends the moment. It represents the idea of an enduring Britain, and it provides ordinary people with a useful distraction from the battles of political life. I never thought I'd say this, but these days, maybe America could use a royal family, too.
BIANCULLI: Critic-at-large John Powers reviewed the third season of "The Crown," available on Netflix this Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.