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The Next ‘Downton Abbey’ Isn’t Here Yet

‘The Crown’ doesn’t quite scratch our fancy British itch. So what can?

Netflix
Netflix

The Crown, Netflix’s latest supersized drama — which already weighs in at two guaranteed seasons of 10 50-plus-minute episodes and at $100 million apiece — bears the hallmarks of a distinct authorial voice. Its subject, the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is well within the established interests of creator, co–executive producer, and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who’s no stranger to either based-on-a-true-story political dramas (The Deal, Frost/Nixon, The Special Relationship) or Queen Elizabeth herself (The Queen, The Audience), interests shared by a following that makes him one of few screenwriters well known enough to sell a series on. Morgan himself is prominently billed in the title card of every episode, as if he were the star. This being a Peter Morgan production, he sort of is.

And yet The Crown, or at least Netflix’s decision to order it to series and invest so many resources in it, seems to have been made with some reverse engineering in mind. The Crown arrives almost precisely a year after the final episode of ITV and PBS’s Downton Abbey, and the two shows laser-target the exact same pleasure centers: sumptuous production design, and a camera that lingers on background details like an episode of MTV Cribs: Aristocracy Edition; intergenerational squabbling, with a reliable quip generator as a key supporting player; and for Americans, a nonstop torrent of posh British accents, the therapeutic equivalent of giving your ears a lavender-scented bubble bath.

But The Crown isn’t as clear a Downton successor as Netflix may have hoped it would be. It’s fundamentally more ambitious than the show whose niche it is intended to fill — a fact that often gets in the way of delivering on the soapy fun that formed so much of Downton’s appeal without replacing it with an equally compelling lure of its own. Freed from excessive fidelity to its nonexistent source material or grander political aspirations, Downton had a frivolity The Crown virtuously denies itself.

Netflix
Netflix

To situate The Crown in the lineage of Middlebrow British Imports Your Mom Will Enthusiastically Text You About, the show picks up about 15 years after Tom Hooper’s 2010 Oscar favorite The King’s Speech left off, though The Crown occasionally flashes back to the same events and shares almost all that film’s characters: King George VI (Jared Harris, taking over from Colin Firth) appears briefly before his passing, and both the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings) himself and the specter of his abdication of the throne linger. But this show belongs to Elizabeth and the woman who plays her; as a wife and mother who becomes a monarch at age 25, Claire Foy invites empathy for a character in the very definition of an unrelatable situation.

Unfortunately, Foy’s talent is stretched to its limits, because many of these characters’ problems aren’t just unrecognizable as problems to us — they’re barely recognizable as problems, period. There are the sort of dilemmas we’ve come to expect from plight-of-the-aristocrat stories, like being unable to marry for love. There are also stories that flirt with exploring the collision of modernity with a thoroughly unmodern institution, like Prince Philip’s (Matthew Smith) self-perceived emasculation after marrying into a life as a professional husband. And then there are quandaries like “I want to promote the junior assistant to the assistant, not the senior assistant to the assistant,” or a scene where someone sadly plays the bagpipes. As fictitious first-world problems, they’re forgivable. As an attempt to illustrate the challenges of governance, they’re confounding.

The Crown doesn’t quite realize that escapism is exactly what it’s best at. The show isn’t without real pleasures: It wears its $100 million price tag with impeccable taste, and the acting has the “bring out the classically trained professionals” feel of any great British ensemble. But The Crown makes it impossible to lose yourself in those pleasures, because it’s not the new Downton. It wants to be the British West Wing, but it’s not that either.

That’s because what Downton casts as personal dramas, The Crown mistakes for political ones. And in its inescapable tie to a long, peaceful, and personal-scandal-free — all modifiers that are good for geopolitical stability and not-so-good for scintillating television — reign, The Crown has no room for the flights of fancy, serial philandering, and sudden deaths of a juicy melodrama. That’s what Downton was, progressively more so as it aged. Can’t marry across class lines? Downton will take that and raise you abandoning your inheritance to marry anyway and then dying in childbirth. Drifting away from your husband? How about said husband squandering away your entire fortune? The flourishes were so elaborate the “relatability” charge simply never came up. These people had a nicer house than us, but they also had way crazier problems. It seemed like a package deal, not to mention a fair trade.

From the very start, Downton made itself about the uncomfortable experience of watching one’s way of life grow outdated in real time, diving into arcane inheritance laws and bringing the lower classes into contact with its central family from the jump. Even if creator Julian Fellowes was on the side of his beloved nobles, he knew their time was nearly up. This gave us the instantly iconic query What is a weekend? — the emphasis on the second syllable is paramount. Downton didn’t always grapple with the decline of the landed gentry subtly, but unsubtlety is one of the luxuries bought by ample suds.

That leaves Downton’s throne still vacant. Penny Dreadful scratched a similar itch for the four people who watched it, even if it was always darker, creepier, and now, over. Outlander holds the current torch, though it ups the ante from class fantasy to literal fantasy. (There’s time travel! Oh, and also hard-core torture.) Both are excellent series channeling the “transportive” part of Downton’s formula well. But no one could exactly call either show soothing, and Downton’s contradictory genius was that it was both.

No other show has yet to hit that perfect, PG-13 sweet spot: sexy, but not too sexual; operatic, but not too intense; a world that’s real, but not too realistic. Which sounds easy to do and easier to find until one realizes that grandiosity is a hard drug to quit: In order to justify a nine-digit price tag, most Big Shows these days have music, robots, or surely, eventually, both. The production value was part of why only a deep-pocketed player like Netflix could put forward a real contender for “next Downton,” but that title also requires a willingness to keep the soft, frothy heart of a broadcast family drama underneath the trappings and expense of cable. Think of it as the most wholesome possible version of titillation — what your grandma would do if she made off with the car keys. In hindsight, Downton transcended mere setting. It was a mind-set.