LONDON — Buckingham Palace was reported to be fearing the worst, but the first installments released Thursday of the much-hyped Netflix documentary series from Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, did not produce any big reveals about bad behavior in the House of Windsor.
Instead, the many British outlets that launched a full-court-press of coverage as soon as the episodes dropped on Thursday morning found themselves writing about a series that directs its anger and blame toward British media outlets for making royal life intolerable, eventually forcing Harry and Meghan to decamp to California.
The tabloids come in for a shellacking. But the royal family? The monarchy, the institution? Barely a scratch.
The six-part series is part of Harry and Meghan’s reported multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix. The remaining episodes are scheduled for release on Dec. 15.
Questions about whether the royal couple had editorial control are addressed in the opening sequence of the program, with white text flashed on a black screen: “This is a firsthand account of Harry & Meghan’s story, told with never before seen personal archive.”
A subsequent slide says: “Members of the Royal Family declined to comment on the content within this series.”
Buckingham Palace told reporters on Thursday that it wouldn’t be commenting on the series. A palace source, however, contradicted the documentary’s claim, saying that neither palace staff nor members of the royal family were approached for comment on the series content.
The palace usually avoids weighing in on royal controversies, but not always. Two days after Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which they asserted that the royal family and institution hadn’t offered support when Meghan was experiencing suicidal thoughts, the queen issued a statement saying she was “saddened” to hear of the challenges they faced, but added that “recollections may vary” regarding some of the issues raised in that interview.
Meghan tells Oprah Winfrey she had suicidal thoughts as part of the royal family: ‘I just didn’t want to be alive anymore’
Nothing in the Netflix program so far has come close to the bombshells of the Winfrey interview last year.
The series covers well-trodden plot points about how the couple were initially embraced in Britain and then (her, mostly) cast in the role of villain.
By their own telling, it’s the British media that are the bad actors.
In the show, Harry tries to explain how the royals are covered in Britain. “I mean, anyone can be a royal expert,” a job title that he says is used to provide legitimacy for stories — whether puff pieces or hatchet jobs.
He asserts that there is an “invisible contract” between the royal hacks and the House of Windsor. The family members “have an obligation to perform” for the cameras, while the tabloids figure “this family is ours to exploit.”
Harry and Meghan have had a long-running war with the British tabloids, including lawsuits that they’ve continued to pursue while living in California.
Harry and Meghan have regularly talked about their origin story as a couple, and that gets a retelling in this show, with slight contradictions from earlier accounts and an added anti-media bent.
In their 2017 engagement interview with the BBC, they said they met for what they described as a blind date, arranged by a mutual friend. He said he’d never heard of her. She said: “I didn’t know much about him.” Her only question for the friend: “Was he nice?”
In the new series, it appears that a degree of social media research was involved before they actually met face to face.
Harry says he was scrolling through his Snapchat feed when he saw a picture of Meghan, with a filter showing dog ears and a snout. “Who is that?” Harry recalled wondering.
Meghan — who told Winfrey “I never looked up my husband online” — says she did look him up after hearing that “Prince Haz” wanted to meet her. She says she avoided media accounts and instead sought out his Instagram feed.
“People say, ‘Did you Google him?’ No, but that’s your homework. Let me see what they are about in their feed. Not what someone else says about them, but what they are putting out about themselves. That was to me the best barometer.”
She says she was immediately hooked by all the environmental photos he was posting from Africa.
The episode includes many references to Princess Diana, and Harry describes how he, like his mother, made decisions with his heart and not always his head. “I am my mother’s son.”
Many of those traits are also shared by Meghan, he adds. “So much of what Meghan is and how she is, so similar to my mom. She has the same compassion, she has the same empathy, she has the same confidence. She has this warmth about her.”
It comes back to the media, however. The references to his mother include memories of “being swarmed by paparazzi.” He was 12 when she died in a car crash in a Paris tunnel while being pursued by the “paps,” as Meghan calls them.
The second episode moves into this darker territory, focusing on what the couple see as harassment by the media. It opens with footage of Harry and Meghan being driven to an event in New York City in 2021. Harry appears nervous and keeps swiveling in his seat, looking behind for chase vehicles.
Meghan says when she began dating Harry, her friends asked, “Is he worth it?”
She was in Toronto filming the TV series “Suits.” He was in London. “I would go straight from set to the airport. Get there. Land. Get harassed,” Meghan says. “Get to him discreetly. Hunker down. And then fly right back and go to set. Just rinse and repeat, constantly.”
Harry recalls how “dating became a combination of car chases, anti-surveillance driving and disguises, which isn’t a particularly healthy way to start a relationship.”
He describes how the media spotlight had impacted past relationships and how his girlfriends would be “splattered across the newspapers, and that person’s family harassed and their lives turned upside down” and he was “terrified” Meghan would be driven away.
The second episode also briefly touches on the subject of relations with the rest of the royal family.
Meghan says she was “in ripped jeans, I was barefoot” when Harry’s brother and sister-in-law, Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, came over for the first time for dinner. “I was a hugger. I’ve always been a hugger. I didn’t realize that is really jarring for a lot of Brits.”
She also recalls the “intense” moment she first met the queen, which she compares to visiting “Medieval Times,” the family dinner theater that features medieval games like jousting. She then performs an exaggerated deep curtsy, while Prince Harry awkwardly looks on.
This is the moment that Meghan describes meeting the late Queen Elizabeth for the first time and how she did not understand why she needed to curtsy to Harry‘s grandmother…— Chris Ship (@chrisshipitv) December 8, 2022
He looks a little uncomfortable about the whole thing#HarryandMeghan pic.twitter.com/H9qr7DqwHq
The series seeks to remind the audience of Britain’s legacy over colonialism and its role in the slave trade. And it recalls early hopes that Harry and Meghan might help to modernize the monarchy, with Meghan, who is mixed-race, helping the royal family look more like modern Britain.
But Harry recalls that within days of the couple’s relationship being revealed, the Daily Mail ran its notorious headline: “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton,” a reference to her Los Angeles roots and the famous rap song by N.W.A. Meghan notes she didn’t live in Compton.
“The direction from the palace was don’t say anything,” Harry says. “As far as a lot of the family were concerned, everything that she was being put through, they had been put through as well.”
Harry said that for the rest of the family, this kind of harassment was seen as a rite of passage. And, in what was likely a swipe at his brother, he said “some of the members of the family were like, ‘My wife had to go through that, so why should your girlfriend be treated any differently? Why should you get special treatment? Why should she be protected?’”
Paul Schemm contributed to this report.