Many shows vanish in an eyeblink. Moments after fading from the screen, they fade from our minds.
Then there’s Netflix’s“The Crown,” which sticks around. Two weeks after the fourth season arrived (Nov. 15), the British press has been awash with commentaries. Even the New York Times – located 3,500 miles from Buckingham Palace – had several pieces about it, including Nov. 27 and 28.
So let me jump in here, with a few comments:
In sheer drama-craftsmanship, this season is a resounding success. Even with some flaws – and there are big ones – it is brilliantly written, filmed and (mostly) played. Catch all 10 episodes.
And accuracy? That seems to be another matter.
One episode does a superb job of humanizing Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” who was prime minister for 11-plus years. It shows her firmly leading the response to Argentina’s attempted Falkland Island takeover, at the same time that she was wracked with worries about her son, missing in Africa.
It’s a terrific hour, a great way of humanizing an austere figure. Still …
Mark Thatcher was located on Jan. 14, 1982; the Falkland crisis began on April 2 – 11 weeks later. The entire premise of a great episode was false.
Another terrific hour focuses on Michael Shea, a career diplomat who became Queen Elizabeth’s press secretary. The Sunday Times had a story saying the queen was appalled by Thatcher’s non-action on South Africa: Of the 49 Commonwealth nations, only Britain resisted doing sanctions.
Eventually, Shea was revealed as the source of the story. “The Crown” goes further: It says Elizabeth asked him to do it, then made him the scapegoat and fired him. That first part has drawn doubts; for the second – it turns out that Shea didn’t leave his Palace job until the next year.
Such details smudge writer-producer Peter Morgan’s remarakable gift for turning real life into drama.
Before “The Crown,” his Oscar-nominated “The Queen” captured Elizabeth’s tardy realization that Diana – to her, a careless kid who sabotaged her son’s life – was adored and mourned by millions.
Now Diana is also the best part of this season. “The Crown” has it both ways: We like and empathize with Diana, a teen thrown into an impossible situation. We also sometimes want to scream at her.
“The Crown” seems best when it focuses on the women. Margaret (Elizabeth’s sister) is portrayed as cynical and acerbic, yet fragile. Anne (Elizabeth’s only daughter) feels distant and repressed, even by this family’s standards. Diana is alternately playful and chaotic. Elizabeth comes across as a well-meaning person who would much rather be riding or hunting.
These are richly developed characters, well worth following. Morgan can only guess what they said in private … and some of those guesses are pretty extreme.
Did Charles really explode with jealous rage, when Diana drew global attention for hugging an AIDS child? Did Andrew really complain loudly that this whole Thatcher crisis was taking attention away from his wedding? Scenes like that make great – but highly unlikely – drama.
And a few of the portrayals seem overblown. Actors have a tendency to study a real-life person, find some trait, then go with it relentlessly. A small quirk becomes large and cartoon-ish.
So this version of Charles is forever stooped over, staring blankly. His dad is sheer granite. And Thatcher says everything in the same stark cadence.
Maybe they’ve been like that in real life – but not every moment.
At times like these, we’re tempted to throw things at the screen. But then Morgan returns to what he does best – the drama of real-life people, thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Then all our gripes slide away. Flaws and all, “The Crown” is great drama.