Since Netflix premiered the first season of “The Crown” in 2016, I’ve prided myself on knowing precisely which viewers to steer toward the epic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. I can sniff them out like a cultural bloodhound. Among the tells: openly admitting to having seen a “Masterpiece,” knowing that a marquess has nothing to do with a marquee, and a swift pricking up of the ears at the hint of a British accent. On the other hand, if a person has a strong stake in, say, the Marvel-vs.-DC debate, I probably just wouldn’t bother. Elizabeth may be formidable, with her neon coats and her pack of corgis, but she can’t compete with She-Hulk.
But now, weeks after season four arrived with its portrayals of Princess Diana and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, all bets are off. This new set of 10 episodes has been hugely popular and buoyed by mainstream buzz and debate, and my “Crown”-dar has been thrown way out of whack. Viewers who previously might have dismissed creator Peter Morgan’s drama as a stuffy spectacle about, arguably, the most boring and inscrutable British monarch ever, a handbag-clutching queen swathed in drapery fabric, are suddenly enthralled. Notoriously withholding of its ratings, Netflix has noted that the show is No. 3 on November’s most-watched list (behind “The Queen’s Gambit” and the kids’ show “CoComelon”). With its cavernous halls, posh pronunciations, silky costumes, and strict, musty etiquette, “The Crown” has become a thing.
There are a number of reasons for this shift from a dignified PBS-y historical portrait to a popular must-binge TV show, the most obvious one being the arrival of Diana. Prior to Diana, the Windsors of “The Crown” were just your average emotionally stunted, passive-aggressive, and terminally dull royal family whose dutiful service to England left them unhappy — think of Princess Margaret’s romantic torment and young Charles’s inability to be with the too-experienced Camilla. We got three quietly bittersweet seasons of love and passion getting sidelined by the demanding and oppressive titular character, the crown. Still locked into steadying the throne after the abdication crisis of 1936, when King Edward stepped down to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, the Windsors were on the whole a colorless bunch. Morgan wrote intelligently and in impressively structured episodes about their challenges — Elizabeth’s sudden rise to power, the conflicts in her marriage, her rapport with Winston Churchill — but still, they were staid.
With the advent of Diana, though, played with the exact right tilt of the head by Emma Corrin, the Windsor story has quickly become more explosively dramatic. During this season’s 1979-1990 timeline, the family turns into a pack of wolves preying on a defenseless lamb, a sweetly innocent young woman with an eating disorder, and the psychological violence of it is riveting. Charles’s failure to muster enthusiasm over the teenage beauty, his jealousy of her fame, the family’s unwillingness to help her cope with the chains of royalty, they all add up to juicy entertainment. In the era of reality TV, we know that the worst behavior is generally rewarded with the best TV ratings; the attention economy thrives on villainy, even when it takes the form of icy glances and — when it comes to the queen — premature dismissals from an audience with her.
The bullying of Diana, and her ascent to become “the people’s princess” at a time of Thatcherian deprivation, also resonate loudly now because those events are recent enough for a large part of the audience to remember them. Far fewer viewers — particularly American viewers — recall what led to the start of Elizabeth’s reign in 1952, Princess Margaret’s royal inappropriateness, the Aberfan disaster, all the events wound into the first three seasons. The introduction of the Diana story transforms the series from an elegant history into the recent-events genre that has taken off of late with “Mrs. America,” “The Loudest Voice,” “The Comey Rule,” and “American Crime Story.” People magazine may only occasionally throw Diana on its cover these days, but her two sons remain breaking news in the glossy tabloid market. She and her legacy, so tragic, a fairy tale gone entirely wrong, remain profitable.
Of course, the biggest reason you might hear your crumpet-and-tea-hating pal spouting wisdom about “The Crown” may have nothing at all to do with “The Crown.” Yes, the pandemic. Everyone is looking for the next show to cue up, as we inch our way into a winter of social distancing without the luxury of backyards and building stoops. More readers than ever write to me these days looking for a solid binge, something that will kill — I mean take up — a good chunk of the endless down time many of us now have. Word of mouth has gotten fierce, as more people than ever have been exchanging suggestions through their masks or on Zoom. “The Crown” has become one of the group of shows currently in vogue, as it offers audiences stuck at home swift transport to a different time and place, to meet a breed of people for whom social distancing has long been a way of life.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.