Series in the age
of the nouveau riche.
By Begoña Gómez Urzaiz
Only people with a poor imagination have compared The Crown, Netflix’s series on Elizabeth II, with Downton Abbey. For starters, compared to The Crown, Downton Abbey is a Flooxer web series shot by a bunch of friends. With a budget of one hundred and fifteen million euros per season (in pounds it sounds even better: a hundred million, rounded and categorical), The Crown is for the moment the most expensive production in Netflix’s short story, which isn’t actually saying much, because up until two days ago the record was owned by Baz Luhrman’s hip-hop operetta, The Get Down.
Everything in this fiction directed by Stephen Daldry breathes money. They even have a pissed-off elephant doing a cameo, for god’s sake! Aircrafts, crowds with hundreds of extras perfectly dressed in period attire, replicas of the interiors of Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, Downing Street and Chartwell, home of Winston Churchill. Getting a real steam train to work cost two hundred and thirty thousand euros; the queen’s wedding dress took six weeks to sew, and cost, in comparison, more than the original one, and some scenes were shot at Ely cathedral (instead of Westminster Abbey in the royal wedding scenes), Slain Castle and Scotland’s Ardverikie House.
It’s true that it would have been difficult to shoot life at court any other way and that they weren’t going to do a Dogville and write “Buckingham” down with chalk on the floor, but there comes a time when money ceases to be a merely aesthetic choice. The British monarchy bases its existence precisely in glitz and in the circumstance that pomp implicitly carries, as Queen mother and Queen grandmother constantly remind Elizabeth II in the series. When kings and queens, also heads of the Anglican Church, are crowned, in an abbey, with a fairy tale ermine stole and a real gold crown, and not in a civil parliamentary act following the same protocol as a civil wedding, as we saw around here a year and a half ago, they do it for something. And Daldry and the only scriptwriter of the series, Peter Morgan, who is very good with establishment chronicles (Frost/Nixon, The Audience), have done likewise. The production overwhelms in such a way –no one argues that they’ve squandered the money: you need to be very cold-blooded not to be moved by Act of God, the episode recreating the thick deadly fog descending over London in 1952, or by the scenes in Scotland sporting a hypnotising colour palette between Constable and Douglas Sirk– that one takes twice or thrice the usual time to reconnect with one’s critical sense, in case of having one. All this, besides, is exacerbated by the Netflix method. That little wheel initiating the countdown when one episode finishes: “The next episode will begin in twenty seconds. Do you want to keep on watching?” Of course, Netflix! I’ll sleep when I’m dead! After three or four episodes, who’s awake enough to even reflect? To think, for instance, that Morgan paints a Royal House of fallible individuals but at the end of the day dutiful and sacrificed before their people, always looking after them, illustrated despots that, when you think of it, are neither despots nor illustrated. Elizabeth II is portrayed as a not too bright young lady, but headstrong, responsible, abnegated and, as it was said when there was no government –in those mad times, right?– “with a sense of state.” Tons of sense of state!
In The Crown, overabundance of means ends up becoming a problem and distracts all those involved in what should be its main goal: telling a very interesting story (how an abdication and a cancer put a shy and unprepared girl on the head of an Empire that started crumbling down long before anyone had thought), and doing so with dexterity and balance, and giving some attention and care to some of the conflicts between the fascinating characters populating the court.
The Crown isn’t the only Netflix series, we should dare say, suffering from that illness: budget excess. Although Charlie Brooker is still in good shape, Black Mirror is not undamaged by its moving from Channel 4 to the streaming platform, despite its increase in budget and the absence of rigid norms this implies. Did the sixth chapter of the third season, Hated in the Nation, really need to last ninety minutes? In seasons one and two, episodes –directed by the demands of traditional TV– lasted forty-five. In the third, the shortest is over fifty, and the narrative doesn’t always justify this. Towards minute twenty in all of them, when the viewer has understood the premise and everything should lead to the climax, rhythm slows down.
Extra long episodes are a brand of what’s been termed Peak TV, our current television age, characterised by excess: of series, options, money, length, recaps, everything! A fantastic problem for us viewers, no doubt…
Amazon and Netflix, the new Peak TV power players, are giving us amazing hours of audiovisual fiction but are somehow behaving as the nouveau riche, who want to have it all and have it now. Nowhere can it be seen more clearly that in their compulsion to sign great directors. You have Luhrmann? I have Whit Stillman. I check your David Fincher and raise a Woody Allen. When Roy Price, vice-president of Amazon Studios, announced this latest signing, the director contributed thus to the press release: “I don’t know how I’ve ended up here. I have no idea and I don’t know where to start. I think Price will regret this.” Later on, he said in several interviews, like this one on Deadline, that he had regretted every minute of his deal with Amazon, in which the online commerce giant asked him to do “what he wanted” for “a lot of money.” Once Crisis in Six Scenes was premiered, almost all critics understood that Allen wasn’t exaggerating when he said he watched no television and didn’t know too well how TV worked.
The channels that have traditionally dominated the business of the so-called quality fiction have also entered that spiral, but still preserve some self-control reflexes. HBO overdid it with Vinyl (Scorsese! Jagger! Cancelled after the first season!) and rejected Utopia when Fincher, precisely, asked for more than a hundred million dollars. After that he went away and they spent it on Westworld, an example that, sometimes, but only sometimes, money galore is good for TV.