Uneasy Lies The Head

I’ve worked with, for and around hundreds of TV shows over my career, of all genres, pedigrees and reputations.  Suffice to say, an awful lot of them were forgettable.  Some were even reprehensible.  And a great deal of those that rose above those Mendoza lines were rarely both impactful and respected at the same time.

So when the rare example of something that actually resonates both in popularity and critical acclaim comes along, you learn to truly appreciate and embrace it.  And when I was fortunate enough to join Sony and began to become exposed to the global tentacles of the company, I learned about the production of a highly ambitious period piece from an affiliated company based in the United Kingdom called Left Bank Pictures.  I learned it was an adaptation of earlier works surrounding the lives of Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family from an esteemed producer named Peter Morgan, who had won acclaim and helped make Helen Mirren a global superstar with his 2006 movie THE QUEEN, and had more recently expanded that exploration with a well-received West End stage play called THE AUDIENCE, eventually developing the relationship between The Queen and her many prime ministers who were the de facto leaders of Britain while the Royal Family that  ruled historically was evolving into a populist but necessary relationship for those who were actually elected into office into a TV series.

And when I heard that Netflix, fresh off its trailblazing gambit to establish itself with the American adaptation of the British drama HOUSE OF CARDS, was ready to pony up $100 million for 10 episodes of THE CROWN, and that Sony was willing to bankroll it, I realized that like it or not, this one show had the potential to make or break a studio and a platform.  In perspective, that’s more than eight times what Sony and FOX plunked down for THE SHIELD.  I knew darn well what was at stake for FX when that debut–exceptionally high-risk for its time–was.  And while neither Sony nor Netflix’s actual futures were completely dependent on how this Queen’s gambit would be received, a nine-figure cost of entry was eye-opening, to say the least.

So I’ve taken particular pride in how successful THE CROWN has been.  How integral it was for Netflix’s global expansion and acceptance.  How proud the Sony team globally was over something so popular and honored.  How certain anyone associated with the company could be about seeing its particpants at awards ceremonies–per Wikipedia,  (i)t has received numerous accolades, including a total of sixty-three Primetime Emmy Award nominations for its first four seasons, winning twenty-one, including Outstanding Drama Series for its fourth season, and seven awards for the cast.[4] The series has also twice won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama, at the 74th and 78th ceremonies, with additional acting wins.

Hence, though I’m long removed from being anything more than a fan, I’m both excited and wistful about the reality check that what is apparently its sixth and final season drops today.  Wisely, Netflix is for the first time splitting up the all-you-can-eat strategy of dumping ten hours at once into the world for what is now becoming streamer SOP to at least spread out the buzz and promotional hit into two parts.  The first four of the final ten hours have been released just in time for a manageable Thanksgiving time feast; the final six will drop on December 14th just in time to be enjoyed over the more extensive Christmas break.

The final season comes on the heels of what VARIETY’s Aramide Tinabu called a stilted fifth season, which lacked the focus and majesty of its predecessors, and opens with the notorious paparazzi-induced crash that took the lives of Princess Diana and her paramour Dodi El-Fayed.  As Tinabu continues, these episodes cover both familiar and unfamiliar turf with equal relish:

Morgan drops his audience in on Princess Diana (a majestic Elizabeth Debicki). One year after her official divorce from Prince Charles (Dominic West), she is a much more vibrant woman than the one viewers last saw. Though haunted by her decade-and-a-half-long bid in the royal family, the Princess of Wales is coming into herself. Often clad in bold swimsuits or comfy sweatshirts, she has shed the restrictive formality of the monarchy. Needing a break from London, she takes businessman Mohamed “Mou Mou” Al-Fayed (a striking Salim Daw) up on his offer for her and her sons, Prince William (Rufus Kampa) and Prince Harry (Fflyn Edwards), to join his family for a 10-day vacation in St. Tropez.  Debicki’s embodiment of Diana’s grace is effervescent. Not only is Morgan careful to highlight her commitment to her charity work, but it’s clear she’s finding her voice despite the people around her who are intent on making her a pawn in their schemes. As much as Season 6 is a goodbye to a pillar of the institution, it also highlights a woman on the verge of something revelatory.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s Kristen Baldwin adds to the accolade and detail:
(T)wo worlds — the claustrophobic chaos of Diana’s life as paparazzi prey and the controlled, comfortable bubble of Queen Elizabeth’s existence — collide violently in the sixth and final season of Netflix‘s The Crown. Chronicling Diana and Dodi’s brief romance and shocking death in a Paris car chase, Peter Morgan’s historical drama takes a wistful, careful, and restrained approach to one of the modern-day royal family’s most momentous tragedies.

As Americans, we watched from afar with intrigue and, eventually, titillation as the storybook romance of Charles and Diana unfolded, produced two handsome princes, and eventually unraveled.  At a time when an American president was “not having sex with that woman” and educating a generation on what exactly “is is”, yet publicly remaining loyal to someone he truly needed as an ally, the Royals were led by their hearts and, it would appear, their libidos.   And if you were around during that era, you knew this story and its details cold.   And THE CROWN has unfortunately been somewhat of a victim of this recency bias and familarity.  The majority of today’s audience don’t recall the earlier years of Elizabeth’s reign, and even if they did details on the nuances and insights that Morgan infused into the episodes that covered them weren’t as well known.  John Lithgow as Winston Churchill was inspired casting and the layered relationship he had with the young Queen was an education to many.  And as fans of THE CROWN knows, Morgan has not refuted that he’s taken some creative liberties with the actual events.  But the more recent years, and certainly the era of Chuck and Di and “Did Dodi Do Di?” era are more familiar, and hence can’t not be compared in some fashion to the reality.  It is that vein that THE CROWN has lost some of its luster, no more exemplified by the much less enthusiastic review from BBC CULTURE’s Caryn James:

In its sixth and final season, The Crown doesn’t waste a second in getting to its most obvious, looming event. The first episode starts with a man walking his dog on a narrow street, and as soon as we spot the Eiffel Tower, we know what’s coming. A black car speeds into a tunnel, followed by more cars and motorcycles, and the sound of a deadly crash. All the while we never leave the dog walker, who takes out his phone to call for help. That scene, with a trajectory so familiar we can fill in the blanks, points to what’s weakest about this new season. Instead of righting the near-disaster of last season, it leans into its flaws, including the miscasting of the earthy Dominic West as Prince Charles and the endless, unenlightening reconstructions of the real images and videos that have become part of the culture, recognisable around the world even to viewers too young to remember the 1990s or Diana’s death first-hand.

It is that sort of reaction, particularly from those closest to the story, that initially led Morgan to not produce a sixth season at all, reversing course only as demand grew during the pandemic summer following its season 4 release in late 2019.  As Wikipedia relates it, Morgan said that when the storylines were being discussed for season five, “it soon became clear that in order to do justice to the richness and complexity of the story we should go back to the original plan and do six seasons”. He added that the final two seasons would enable them “to cover the same period in greater detail”.[27]

Translated:  Neither Netflix or Sony wanted the accolades to end.  And at a time when both platform and studio are facing challenges and leadership changes, that may be even truer now.

Sony, in particular, has undergone an almost complete overhaul in the past year and change, with practically the entire senior TV leadership team that greenlit THE CROWN now moved on or moved out.  And while the current regime of Katherine Pope is out there pitching away, they’ve lost more battles than they’ve won, most recently losing its GOOD DOCTOR spin-off THE GOOD LAWYER to the reality check of an ABC network that no longer needs or is willing to bankroll mid-season series in the aftermath of the dual strikes and the economic clouds they have unleashed on the industry as a whole.  Its well-received Apple TV+ comedy THE AFTERPARTY is being shopped around, yet another test of Sony’s tenacity to support shows and creators when platforms without a full affiliation sour on outside suppliers.  My team won a few of those battles and took particular pride in doing so.  Pope’s regime?  Still too early to pass full judgement, but we’ve yet to see much white smoke come from this “pontiff”‘s headquarters.  And without the near-certainty of award nominations for something like THE CROWN much longer, those negotiations and conversations are only going to get more labored.

The sixth season’s timeline is reportedly going to end with 2005, when Charles and Camilla officially get married.  Morgan has been determined for a 20-year cutoff for many of the reasons cited above.  But between the tempation of the Harry and Meghan drama, which Netflix all too well knows about (there’s no SUITS phenomenon without that miniseries’ popularity and algorithm to drive its viewers to it), the drama of Brexit and the ludicrous reign of Boris Johnson, and, of course, the majesty and continued determination of Elizabeth to remain in power even as her health and that of the world itself diminished, and as time distances us from those more recent events, let’s just say I’m not fully convinced we will have seen the last of THE CROWN once this season is fully released.  And if I were Katherine Pope, I’d be doing everything I can possibly can–and make sure my minions are fully dedicated– to try and make it happen.

Ask any queen or princess how difficult it is to stay in power and in control.

Until next time…

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