One of the most exemplary scenes of “The Crown,” both in its upcoming third season and of the series overall, concerns a royally botched television appearance. Hoping to prove to the country that they’re “perfectly normal people,” Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) and her family agree to be part of a documentary about their daily lives, which in turn only proves just how extravagant and far removed from reality they truly are. Taking in the ensuing criticism, Elizabeth only barely contains her fury that anyone should suggest they don’t “wake up in the morning, go to bed at night…work, get tired, get colds” like anyone else. But as her new prime minister, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), gently suggests, that’s not enough — and not the point at all. “They don’t want you to be normal,” he says of her constituents. “We don’t know what we want, other than we want you to be ideal. An ideal.”
This tension between wanting to know everything about the royals and wanting them to remain mysteriously untouchable forms the spine of “The Crown,” Peter Morgan’s lush Netflix drama about the United Kingdom’s latest dynasty. Despite having some very real constitutional duties, the royals are so tied to pomp and circumstance that they’re more static figureheads than politicians. Occasionally, their private lives (or at least the dregs that tabloids can dig up) provide a glimpse of the flesh and blood people they might actually be beneath the piles of unimaginable wealth: people who not only wake up and go to bed, but harbor resentment, jealousy, passion. For many, and certainly for “The Crown,” those peeks behind the curtain prove both irresistible and grotesque. And with the third season covering 1963 through 1977, “The Crown” is now in a world where the royals, with their palatial homes and stilted manner, are out of step with the times and increasingly aware of it.
The show remains itself, with its signature luxurious production design, dramatic centered shots and extremely on-the-nose dialogue that reads like posh royal fanfic more often than not. But the times at hand demand a different vibe, however slight. Revolution is in the air; unknowable rulers are out of fashion, and the people they rarely deign to glance at are emboldened to do something about it. For casual observers of royal comings and goings, though, the period that this season covers may be more unfamiliar than period covered in the first two seasons. While the previous tackled titanic figures such as Winston Churchill and the upcoming fourth season will include famous names like Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, the third takes on the roiling sea change in between and the royals’ overwhelming inability to adapt.
This is a nightmare scenario for Elizabeth, even as she’s now far more settled into her position as sovereign and head of the family. In the first two seasons, Claire Foy imbued Elizabeth’s reluctant rise with a seething resolve to do right by her family while pushing down the resentment that she should have to do it at all. Colman, whose portrayal of a very different queen in “The Favourite” earned her an Oscar earlier this year, echoes Foy’s blueprint while deepening Elizabeth as someone who has lived and learned (in some arenas, at least). Embodying such a resolutely staid character while leaving room for telltale cracks is an extraordinarily tricky balancing act, but Colman is more than capable. She gets much less meat to tear into than some of her peers by virtue of her character’s demeanor, but nonetheless makes the most of the morsels (and some very clunky monologues) with beautifully managed micro-expressions that make her true feelings crystal clear.
Elsewhere, Elizabeth’s snotty husband Philip (Tobias Menzies) is still restless to forge his own path, though he respects his no-nonsense wife more than ever for how she’s navigated hers. Their eldest children — Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Anne (Erin Doherty) — are teenagers balancing the demands of being royal with being actual people. Meanwhile, headstrong Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) languishes in the margins, feeling increasingly useless and furious at how her life’s shaken out. Menzies, taking over this season for Matt Smith, embraces Smith’s sneer while abandoning some of his baser petulance. He turns in a very good performance that reveals its layers with every episode. Bonham Carter’s Margaret is at turns fabulous and heartbreaking; she’s so good in the part, in fact, that it’s a disappointment to see her disappear from view when she’s not directly in the spotlight. (The same goes for Ben Daniels, who, as Margaret’s wandering husband Tony, taps into an unsettling undercurrent of anger.)
The supporting cast remains as starry as ever. Watkins as Wilson, Charles Dance as Dickie Mountbatten, Jane Lapotaire as Philip’s mother, Alice, and Derek Jacobi and Geraldine Chaplin as Edward and Wallis Simpson are particularly good, as could be expected. But with that kind of wattage at the show’s disposal, it’s even more remarkable that relative newcomers O’Connor and Doherty command as much attention that they do. Doherty makes Anne singularly wry and blunt with a standout performance that should by all rights earn the kind of attention that Vanessa Kirby’s turn as Margaret once did. And O’Connor’s Charles, gawky and disrespected by his entire family, somehow becomes the season’s sympathetic hero in the back half, a task the actor takes on by giving Charles some surprising warmth.
It’s encouraging that O’Connor and Doherty in particular leap off the screen, given that their generation of royals will be the next to steer the events of the series. But it’s also interesting (and telling) how the framing of Charles as a tender naif often does what that disastrous documentary tried to do, humanizing him as a “normal” guy caught up in something bigger than himself. As Wilson told Elizabeth, and as Charles’ new girlfriend Camilla (Emerald Fennell) tries to tell him, “nothing about this is normal.” The royals are a protected class unto themselves; even their clipped, impossibly rounded accents set them apart from the upper-crust they occasionally entertain. And yet, “The Crown” can’t help itself from indulging exactly the argument that Elizabeth herself made. They sleep, eat, go to bed, wake up. Even when they make huge mistakes that reverberate through history, as Elizabeth does in this third season after fumbling her response to a deadly catastrophe, “The Crown” hurries to insist that they nonetheless have some regrets, and shouldn’t that count for something?
This dual attempt to humanize the royals without going too far in any direction presents an uneasy balancing act that “The Crown” doesn’t always nail. The moments when it does can be transcendent, which is almost always thanks to the actors, not to mention the directors guiding them. Without these steady, nuanced performances, “The Crown” could easily droop under the weight of its own ambition and others’ expectations. With them, “The Crown” becomes as compelling a portrait of how power warps individuals, and the world along with them, as exists on TV.
The third season of “The Crown” premieres Sunday, Nov. 17 on Netflix.
(Drama, 60 mins. 10 episodes; all watched for review.)