Last year I enthusiastically described Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” with the word “scrumptious.” Season 2 of this lavishly made, approximately true biographical series about the young Queen Elizabeth II deserves an upgrade in praise, while also recognizing that the show has discovered its top and gone a little over it.
So now it’s . . . scrumpdillyicious, perhaps? In striving to be more, “The Crown,” which delivers 10 robust new episodes Friday on Netflix, intermittently becomes too much.
But I doubt you’ll hear fans complain as they devour each and every bit of it — the way Elizabeth (Claire Foy) slathers butter on her baked goods as a means of quietly tormenting her VIP guest, Jacqueline Kennedy (Jodi Balfour), during a teatime tete-a-tete between two women with markedly different approaches to 20th-century fame. This is the kind of show you watch with hopes that it will give you a bit too much of everything.
That said, “The Crown” brings surprisingly less oomph this time around and takes noticeably more liberties with historical fact and chronology. We return more or less where we left off in the late 1950s: Winston Churchill has been replaced (which sadly means no more John Lithgow) by a rapid sequence of milquetoasty prime ministers (Jeremy Northam as Anthony Eden; Anton Lesser as Harold Macmillan), while Elizabeth and her husband, Philip (Matt Smith), have fallen into a cyclical pattern of marital frostiness followed by periods of detente long enough to produce two more sons.
She’s certain he’s cheating; the palace cognoscenti are certain he’s cheating; viewers are certain he’s cheating; yet “The Crown” remains coy about catching Philip in the act. “We all know how it works,” Philip complains, when forced to fire his chief confidant and fellow playboy (who is going through a public divorce that threatens to shame the palace). “There is no room for mistakes, there is no room for scandal. There is no room for humanity.”
He means the humanity in his trousers. There’s quite a bit of this macho misery in the first few episodes, which focus too much on Philip’s wounded ego and his extended goodwill cruise around the British Empire (where temptations abound and cheap spirit-gum costume beards are applied as Philip’s all-guy ship symbolically traverses the frigid Arctic).
After that, “The Crown” becomes more like its old self, namechecking historical events (the Sputnik launch, the Profumo scandal, African colonies in revolt), but always sticking close to family affairs. The fifth episode, “Marionettes,” recounts the palace’s reckoning at last with its own stodgy image, as the Second Baron Altrincham (John Heffernan) pens an editorial in the National and English Review that sharply criticizes the queen’s remote style of rule and the stiff delivery of her dreadfully snobby speeches. Hailed by progressives and derided by loyalists, Lord Altrincham manages to have an impact on public opinion and, eventually, the queen herself.
Here, Foy gets to show off her greatest skill, which is transmitting Elizabeth’s near-wordless disappointments and vulnerabilities through all that power and stiff-upper-lip resolve. She still rules, but, as the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton) astutely observes, the Empire is shrinking and her daughter must learn to become more of a symbolic queen than an actual one — a puppet for the people. This means she’ll have to start doing live TV addresses instead of radio; she’ll have to get out there and meet more of the common folk. She’s on the precipice of a change that will define her long reign.
Yet for every step forward, a setback. After she acquiesces to a new, shorter and more modern hairdo, Philip is there to undermine her confidence. “I thought you were hoping for more children from me.”
“I am,” Elizabeth replies.
“Then why on Earth would you do something like that to your hair?”
“What’s wrong with it? I thought it was tidy and sensible.”
“Adjectives to stir the loins.”
A visit from U.S. President John F. Kennedy (“Dexter’s” Michael C. Hall) and Jackie has both an enlivening and intimidating effect on the royals; Elizabeth learns a thing or two from the first lady about the uses of celebrity distraction in diplomacy. Her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), meanwhile, continues to suffer ever so exquisitely, as if in a dress rehearsal for the life of Diana 30 years down the road. Margaret’s woes are ameliorated by the arrival of Antony Armstrong-Jones (“Downton Abbey’s” Matthew Goode), who is only too happy to tweak convention with a modern marriage that is more style over substance. Sadly, Goode’s knack for playing sympathetic cads doesn’t quite register — or smolder — here; he’s not having his usual fun.
As before, I recommend taking “The Crown” in small doses — no more than an episode or two at a time — because it works best when savored as a series of short but extravagant films about a dysfunctional family facing a unique set of problems.
Overall, this season of “The Crown” works best in story lines that handle both the past and the future: Shy, jug-eared Prince Charles (Julian Baring) is shipped off to the dreary, bully-filled Gordonstoun School in Scotland, his father’s alma mater. While Charles suffers, the viewers at least get to flash back to the unenviable details of Philip’s adolescence, which was rife with tragedy, neglect and (you guessed it) Nazis.
Where is the queen in all this? Excellent question. Foy certainly dominates the many scenes she’s in, but the show seems more interested this time in developing every other character but hers, perhaps as a way of preparing viewers for a bigger shift next season, when “Broadchurch’s” Olivia Colman is expected to take over the role of an older queen with a fresh set of issues to face. If nothing else, “The Crown” makes it abundantly clear that Elizabeth’s job is a lifelong — and often redundant — burden.
The Crown (10 episodes) returns Friday on Netflix.