Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
The problem with Peak TV is that there are too many shows, both on cable and on streaming platforms for even an avid TV watcher, such as myself, to indulge. This series was one such that fell through the cracks for me. Ever since the pandemic of COVID-19, the coronavirus that has resulted in the shutdown of many businesses, including movie theaters, starting the weekend of March 20, I’ve had extra time to go back and have a look at TV shows that I missed, especially from last fall. The first of which is this series, which debuted in 2016, but has eluded me for nearly four years. I binge-watched all of it up to this current season and figured I would weigh in with my opinion.
The series is the brain-child of Oscar-nominee Peter Morgan who received his first, Academy Award nomination for writing the screenplay The Queen (2006). That film was about how Queen Elizabeth II handled the death of Princess Diana in 1997. It also focused on her relationship with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both deal with the struggle over what the appropriate reaction should be to the public about various issues and even perceptions of the Royal family itself. Morgan then wrote a play that was produced called The Audience (2013), which was about Queen Elizabeth II and her relationship with all of her Prime Ministers going all the way back to her first, Winston Churchill in the 1950’s. This series is very much an adaptation of that play or it could be seen as a prequel to his 2006 film.
Claire Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web and First Man) stars as Queen Elizabeth II, the version that we see for Season 1 and Season 2. She’s a woman who never had any inclination to be queen and didn’t think she ever would. The only reason that she ascended to the throne was because her uncle, King Edward VIII abdicated his responsibilities in 1936, making his brother and Elizabeth’s father, King George VI. When her father dies in 1952, she is then thrust into this position and has to try to manage all the protocols and royal restrictions that are her duties to follow and maintain.
Some of those restrictions include not being political. As sovereign in the way that the United Kingdom is established in its constitution, the monarch can’t be political or seemingly go against the political party that is the majority as represented by the prime minister. Some of the other restrictions pertain to religion. As sovereign, the monarch is also the head of the church, so there are certain, religious rules that have to be followed. The Royal family has also to appear moral and dignified, even if it’s just an appearance of so in the public. However, various family members often break from those political and religious restrictions and this often results in scandals or near scandals that Elizabeth has to navigate or suppress somehow.
Olivia Colman (The Favourite and Fleabag) stars as Queen Elizabeth II, the version that we see, starting in Season 3. It’s not exact, but each season of the series so far has covered a decade in the life of the British Royal family. The first season covered the 1950’s roughly. The second season covered the 1960’s and the third season covers the 1970’s, so Colman’s version of Queen Elizabeth II is over 20 years since ascension to the throne. One would think that dealing with age and aging as a royal and the rigidity of her position would be something at play in the third season, but Morgan really gave that to Foy in the previous season. So many of the essential conflicts that could be explored already were explored in Season 1 and Season 2, leaving not much more gray areas for Elizabeth.
The only thing left are how Morgan can dramatize the various political issues and scandals that befall the UK from year-to-year or from decade-to-decade. The way that Morgan dramatized things in Season 1 and Season 2 were superb and practically perfect. Every episode in Season 1 and 2 were highly, highly engaging. Morgan made minor domestic struggles and even major international conflicts feel equally as exciting and consequential as the most heartrending life-and-death scenarios. Yet, by Season 3, Morgan’s series runs out of steam. I suppose there’s only so much heartrending drama to be wrung from a powerless, figure head who also has to be stoic and stiff upper lip about it all.
Josh O’Connor (Emma and God’s Own Country) co-stars as Prince Charles, aka Charles Windsor, the Prince of Wales. He’s the eldest son of Elizabeth and the next in line to the throne. He gives what could be considered the standout performance of the whole season, and hopefully he’s granted an Emmy nomination for his work here. Of the ten episodes, only four are worth watching and O’Connor is at the center of two of those episodes. The sixth episode called “Tywysog Cymru” and the ninth episode “Imbroglio” exemplify Charles’ plight. He can’t be or do what he wants. He can’t fall in love or be with the girl he wants due to the royal restrictions. His story when it arrives here echoes a lot of the issues from the previous seasons coming like a circle around and around again, but Morgan proves good at these little domestic scandals.
Since the departure of John Lithgow who portrayed Winston Churchill as a regular character in Season 1 and who won an Emmy for his incredible work, the show hasn’t managed to make the Prime Ministers who followed him as dynamic or as interesting. Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech and Alice in Wonderland) plays Princess Margaret, the sister to Elizabeth and she’s given an episode to shine. That episode is the second called “Margaretology.” It underscores the rivalry that’s always existed between the sisters on the series in that Margaret has always wanted the spotlight but keeps getting robbed of it or denied it. Carter was the perfect recasting to Vanessa Kirby’s work as Margaret in the previous seasons.
Whereas Matt Smith was an incredible Prince Philip, the husband to Elizabeth. I was less impressed with Tobias Menzies who takes over the role of Philip in Season 3. It’s nothing against the actor, but, aside from a powerful moment in the first episode called “Olding,” the series doesn’t utilize Menzies as well as Smith was. He’s given an episode pretty much all to himself in “Moondust,” but the resolution of that episode was a bit of a letdown. Yet, letdowns or disappointments have been the name of the game of this series from the beginning, as Morgan’s series does more to deconstruct the Royal family as much as he venerates them. I do have to point out the great work of Jane Lapotaire who plays Princess Alice, the mother to Philip who gets one episode called “Bubbikins” and for her efforts in that one episode, I would certainly give her an Emmy nomination.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 10 eps.
Available on Netflix.