The Emmy nominations, announced Tuesday morning, were, appropriately enough, a coronation.
While the actual awards won’t be handed out until September, “The Crown,” in its fourth season, garnered 24 nominations — a field-leading total, tied with Disney Plus’ effects-heavy “The Mandalorian.” Netflix’s royals drama had been a major player in awards races of recent years: It had previously won awards for Claire Foy’s second-season performance as Queen Elizabeth II and for Stephen Daldry’s direction, among others. But with this year’s nominations, it suddenly came to look like the show at the center of television.
Not merely, for instance, did series regulars including Olivia Colman, Emma Corrin, and Josh O’Connor (playing, respectively, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana, and Prince Charles) all receive nominations in the lead category, so, too, did four supporting players and even Foy herself, making a fleeting cameo as Elizabeth’s younger self. With two nominations in directing and a number of craft nominations, “The Crown” is cutting a similar profile to another show about how leaders struggle to retain control of a restive public; that show was departed Emmy titan “Game of Thrones.”
“Game of Thrones” took some time to build towards its highest level of Emmy attention. Similarly, “The Crown” has arrived as a drama standard-bearer well into its planned six-season run. The early seasons, starring Foy, could be at times a bit bloodless; Olivia Colman’s first season, in 2019, was plainly transitional, moving the show forward in time without a clear throughline. In the fourth season, though, both problems were solved by the appearance of two of the Queen’s subjects: The show was infused both with a new passion and with a guiding structure once Colman’s Elizabeth had to wage a double battle with Corrin’s Diana and Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher.
The show’s nominations-morning triumph has something to do with its lack of competition — “Thrones” is gone, and last year’s champion “Succession” returns later this year after time off the air. But “The Crown” might have done this well regardless. Much about it feels built for a moment in which a desire to critically re-evaluate the recent past collides with what seem to be increasingly contradictory feelings across our society about the rich and famous.
The show is in love with the trappings of royalty even while depicting it as a gilded cage, and its characters are both laudable and nightmarish in equal measure. Elizabeth, for instance, is both driven by duty and willfully blind to the misery of practically every member of her family. “The Crown’s” central family can often be what we might imagine them in our less royalist moments: Charles is feckless, while Prince Philip comes by his boorishness honestly thanks to a terrible childhood, but is still a boor. Recent revelations from the real-world Meghan Markle about her treatment by the palace made the months-earlier release of a season of television largely about the abuse and neglect of her late mother-in-law Diana feel somewhat prophetic. Certainly, the show, having pushed through the less widely-remembered years of Elizabeth’s reign, landed on her mid-reign crises at a moment the public was ready to devour them.
This sort of dramatization is not an invention of “The Crown”: FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which aired the same year “The Crown” debuted, showed just how much potency there is in finding new angles on widely-remembered stories from recent history. (This kicked off a wave of similar TV but was likely not news to “The Crown” writer Peter Morgan, who had previously dramatized the inner life of Elizabeth II in the 2006 film “The Queen.”) And “The Crown’s” desire to split the difference in depicting its royals as containing a mix of personal qualities can look less like an attempt to build truthful and real characters than an unwillingness to take a side.
The fourth season’s wrap-up of the Thatcher storyline, in which the Queen, her season-long adversary, praises her for being a strong woman, was more than faintly ludicrous. It was an instance of the show losing the balance it elsewhere manages — ascribing motives and beliefs to people whose whole point is their unknowability, but also treating their unknowability as fascinating, glamorous, and cool. Half the time, the show brings the royals down to our mortal coil, and the other half it elevates them as possessed of unique and special traits and responsibilities. Whatever larger thing the show wants to say isn’t always clear — perhaps suiting a moment in which the public’s attitude towards celebrity alternates between veneration and vitriol.
And the show hardly needs to have a consistent take about the inherent goodness or badness of the Mountbatten-Windsors to be great fun. Indeed, the fourth season’s big statements fell flat, but its march through the scandals of the 1980s was the sprightliest and most fun a show that once had an episode about London’s killer fog crisis had ever been. For a viewer inclined to be interested in the scandals of the royal family, its lack of a clear or consistent point-of-view wasn’t a stumbling block; it only made the delivery of drama all the more efficient, as the show could mutate moment-to-moment. And to consume gossip about Elizabeth’s family is at once to want to see them made mortal and to acknowledge that there’s a certain inherent power to their position, a conflicting set of impulses that show up more broadly across our culture in a more democratic social-media age.
Like “Thrones” — and, for that matter, like “The Mandalorian” — “The Crown” can function as a work of intellectual-property-driven high fantasy. It takes faces and names with which we are familiar and remixes them in ways that are so effective that credulity doesn’t really matter. It’s impeccably mounted and acted, but the thing that may make it the perfect show for its moment may be its deep ambivalence about its very subject. Viewers of “The Crown” are served the many reasons why royalty is a curse and its recent bearers are deeply flawed; those same viewers are also devouring sumptuous settings and the delight of the Queen always finding the right way to get over on her adversaries in the end. Holding both these thoughts in mind at once — that, to borrow a phrase, our faves are problematic, but they’re still our faves — is the central compromise of consuming culture in the 2020s. “The Crown’s” most recent season brought us there, and cemented it as, whatever happens with the Emmys, the key drama of an unsettled moment.