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The Crown’s demise is a glittering metaphor for Netflix’s downward trajectory

Peter Morgan’s sweeping royal drama has gone from being the jewel in Netflix’s crown to a symbol of the platform’s decline in popularity and quality, writes Nick Hilton. Where did it all go wrong?

Thursday 14 December 2023 07:38 GMT
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<p>Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II, who has been increasingly sidelined in ‘The Crown’</p>

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II, who has been increasingly sidelined in ‘The Crown’

In a glorious sweep of history that has taken us from the 1947 wedding of the baby-faced Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten to the halcyon days of Cool Britannia in the 1990s, Netflix’s The Crown has been a lavish, panoptic companion through the 20th century. Depicting the House of Windsor through its highs and lows, its stiff upper lips and blubbering bluebloods, it has gained a reputation as the jewel in the Netflix crown. But now, with its final season released this week, the end is near – and, in a twist of fate, the monarchy, The Crown and Netflix itself are all in a more precarious state than when things began in 2016.

At a reported cost of £100m, the first instalment of Netflix’s biopic of Elizabeth II, covering an era of her life unfamiliar to most viewers, was a gamble. Would its audience be receptive to this portrait of a fragile young princess on the cusp of becoming both ruler and legend? The critical consensus was, almost, unanimous. The Guardian called it “addictive”, The Wall Street Journal said it was “outstanding”, and The Washington Post labelled it “scrumptious” (although it should be noted that The Independent poured cold water on this critical love-in).

Netflix, which had already demonstrated itself to be an ambitious insurgent broadcaster following the 2013 release of the heralded House of Cards, was vindicated. “I was saying to Netflix,” Peter Morgan, the show’s creator, said in an interview with Variety back in 2016, “let’s do [more series] only if the show has a significant enough footprint, if it resonates enough with people.”

Well, fast-forward seven years and the show’s sixth season is about to be released. The fanfare that greeted its earlier seasons, led by superb turns from Claire Foy and Matt Smith and sustained by the injection of Princess Diana into the mix, has waned somewhat. After four seasons of unanimous acclaim, the fifth outing arrived last year (the first to be released following the deaths of Prince Philip and the Queen) to a middling reception. “It’s hard to shake the feeling that this series has lost some of its lustre,” came the aggregated judgement of Rotten Tomatoes.

The Crown season 6 part 1 trailer

In a way, The Crown is just the canary in the coal mine on the tip of the iceberg (to mix some metaphors). Of the shows launched during that early glut at Netflix (remember Orange Is the New Black, Narcos and Ozark?), only The Crown and Stranger Things are still chugging along. But each is approaching its final season, and it has become hard to avoid the sense that a door is closing at Netflix. The end of an era.

“Netflix was based on getting big subscription numbers that kept increasing and hence encouraged more investment,” says Toby Miller, a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and author of the influential 2002 book Television Studies, “and on utilising the new international division of cultural labour by making TV around the world via ‘free’ money.” This so-called “free” money was the premise that if the share price was increasing – and therefore generating profit for investors – the business itself didn’t need to be in the black.

It was an idea that transformed the industry. You need only look at the calibre of stars who were attracted to Netflix’s projects in those early years, when the shareholder boon was reflected in enormous pay packages: Kevin Spacey, Ricky Gervais, Selena Gomez, Adam Sandler, Idris Elba, to name but a few (not to mention directors like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Bong Joon-ho, and Noah Baumbach).

Netflix had the dizzying combination of money and credibility and, unlike the traditional American cable networks, didn’t make outrageous commitment demands of its A-list employees. “Having fewer episodes makes for less pressure on creators and greater concentration of quality,” Miller notes.

There are few institutions more sellable, internationally, than the British royal family. Peter Morgan, writer of The Audience, a play that features Queen Elizabeth in conversation with prime ministers from Churchill to Cameron, knew this better than anyone. He had experience in American television, having sold his film, The Special Relationship, to HBO in 2010. But he was best known, stateside, for The Queen, which won Helen Mirren an Oscar for playing Her Majesty in the days following the death of Princess Diana.

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Morgan instinctively understood that what made Mirren’s portrait so moving was that it offered viewers a rare chance to see the humanity behind the pageantry of state visits and processions. It was, at its heart, a story about a family.

Staunton has played Queen Elizabeth II in ‘The Crown’ since the start of season five

The Crown exists in an interesting category of royal representation,” says Laura Clancy, author of Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages Its Image and Our Money. “It is not ‘official’ representation, yet it has been incorporated into the royal imaginary by audiences to the extent that fact and fiction are blurred.”

At times, the show has veered towards a propagandist tone, humanising the Queen, apologising for her relationship with empire, and burnishing her reputation with the commonfolk, as seen in episodes such as those that dealt with with the Aberfan disaster or Michael Fagan, the Buckingham Palace intruder. “The Crown has done a lot of positive things for the monarchy,” says Clancy, “making them relevant to new audiences.”

But as the series has moved into the more recent past, it has also had to grapple with more salacious issues. In blunt terms, it has been a move from broadsheet to tabloid. And while the performances of rising stars Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor were rightly praised as they introduced Prince Charles and Princess Diana to viewers, the increased centrality of a palace soap opera has not been universally popular.

“Recent seasons of The Crown feel more like a spin-off show rather than The Crown itself,” says Mimi Gill, an avid watcher from Florida who runs the show’s Facebook fan club. “More time,” she notes, “is devoted to the relationships and drama among the younger royal family members, and less time is devoted to Queen Elizabeth and Britain’s role in world history.”

This is a sentiment broadly shared among fans. “I have fairly low expectations for the last season,” an ardent viewer from Atlanta tells me. “We all know how [Princess Diana] died and the fallout from the first muted reaction to her death... why do we have to rehash it yet again?” Another fan says they “do not have confidence at all that Diana’s story will be handled well” and that they’re concerned the romance between Prince William and Kate Middleton will “look like the Lifetime or Hallmark movie versions of their story.”

Emily, another fan, feels that “making media about people who are alive or recently deceased, especially with controversy, is already crossing a line”. My mother – and mothers are the key demographic for the show, after all – couldn’t even remember if she’d seen the most recent series. If there is a shared feeling within the fandom, it’s one of apprehension. They no longer trust Morgan and Netflix to steer HMY Britannia home.

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in the forthcoming season

But rather than it being a case of a show somnambulantly drifting towards the rocks, as series like Lost or even House of Cards did in years gone by, the shifts in tone and focus in The Crown are of a piece with a broader strategy at Netflix. After the pandemic, and with economic uncertainty and lengthy strikes bringing pressure to bear on the industry, the “free money” era was declared over. “Problems began when subscriptions plateaued, then dropped,” says Miller. “And unlike Amazon or Apple, Netflix lacked a huge pipeline of digital distribution, plus other businesses that bring those entities gigantic cash flow to support production.”

‘Bridgerton’ and ‘Queen Charlotte’ are the missing link between ‘The Crown’ as it was conceived in its first series and the tawdry gossip column it’s become

And so, Netflix has, technically, moved to a more revenue-focused model. It has cracked down on password sharing (a move that has seen a spike in registrations) as well as introducing a tiered subscription model, featuring a basic level with advertising (“That will presumably mean that much, if not all, programming will be shot and edited with a view to inserting commercials,” Miller notes). Back in 2016, when The Crown’s reign began, these sorts of changes would have been inconceivable. Netflix was all about eyeballs and watch time – but now there is an added financial urgency.

On top of that, Netflix has diversified its production away from awards-baiting prestige dramas. After all, Succession, a critical hit for HBO, drew just 2.9 million live viewers to its finale: a fine figure, but still a fraction of the number, 6.6 million, who tuned in for the opener of Yellowstone’s fifth season on Paramount. (Yellowstone, it might be noted, has received only one Emmy nomination, for production design, over its entire run.)

“Netflix has earned the second most Emmy nominations of any TV network after HBO,” says Lucas Shaw, who writes Bloomberg’s Screentime newsletter. “The notion that Netflix no longer makes quality TV is a fallacy.” But Shaw goes on to note that the broadcaster “is less focused on programmes that win awards or satisfy niche audiences, and more focused on programmes that please the maximum number of viewers”.

Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in ‘The Crown’ season one, when it was at its best

In other words, crowd-pleasing, family-friendly shows like Wednesday or Sex Education. There has been an increased focus on stories aimed at a teen and Gen Z audience, shows such as Heartstopper and Emily in Paris. But beyond projects that are clearly marketed towards younger audiences, there has been a tonal shift, too.

Showrunner Mike Flanagan, for example, has made a trilogy of miniseries for Netflix based on the works of acclaimed horror writers Shirley Jackson, Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor – based on The Turn of the Screw – and The Fall of the House of Usher, respectively). All are pulpy, referential, almost satirical; more influenced by Scream than The Exorcist.

Bridgerton (and its spinoff, Queen Charlotte) are, perhaps, the missing link between The Crown as it was conceived in its first series and the tawdry gossip column it’s become. On the surface, Bridgerton is a sweeping, romantic period drama for Austenophiles, but beneath that veneer is something frivolous, sexy, zeitgeisty. “Diana opened up new economies of representation for the monarchy,” says Clancy. “Namely her more intimate, less formal, communications with audiences.” It is possible that the new Netflix would have applied the Bridgerton intimacy formula to the Diana-Charles-Camilla triangle, were it conceiving that drama in the present moment.

Perhaps The Crown, like Netflix, was always on a hiding to nothing. The eras of Churchill and Attlee, of JFK and LBJ, were preordained to give way to the more recent past. Strong views about the 1946 New Towns Act or the Suez Crisis may have died down over the years, but opinions about Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles are still raw, open wounds. “I think it’s a mistake to end the series with Prince Charles and Camilla’s wedding, which is a very unpopular moment for many,” says Gill. “Viewers may be left without proper closure to Queen Elizabeth’s life and reign, and I think that’s going to hurt the show’s legacy.”

Whether it goes out with the pomp of a state funeral or is shuffled off screen like Prince Andrew at a public engagement, one thing is likely: Netflix is not going to be making another show of the scale or grandeur of The Crown any time soon. The gamble, it seems, didn’t pay off.

‘The Crown’ season six arrives on Netflix on Thursday 16 November

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