Pretty much the last thing I wanted in life was to be sucked into the vortex of another snobby British costume drama. Especially after suffering through the last two hideous seasons of Downton Abbey. As that show limped to some kind of meaningless conclusion, I found myself hoping an army of zombies would overrun that crumbling British house and devour those tiresome fools. The only pleasurable moment of those final episodes was watching Lord Grantham vomiting blood at dinner, raising hope that an alien-like creature would burst out of his chest, and save the world from the tedium of this show.
So when my family started watching the first season of Netflix’s The Crown last year, I wanted no part of it. Writ large, The Crown tells the same story as Downton Abbey. A bunch of spoiled idiots find themselves trapped in an antiquated, useless British institution that is on a long, slow decline due to the march of modernity and a growing realization that these people are useless idiots. Wracked with angst, our idiots do their best to justify their existence in the face of mounting evidence that “Royal Lives Don’t Matter” as they face increasingly smaller stakes. As an American, watching either show is an extended exercise in self-loathing due to the fact that you actually care what happens to the characters, while knowing you really shouldn’t give a fuck.
Determined not to fall into this entertainment hellpit, whenever The Crown was on, I did my best to be otherwise occupied. Pulling out the laptop to catch up on email. Trundling back to my office to do “work”. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I caught enough of it to eventually be sucked into the whole goddamn affair. And so now, with season two here, I watched straight through, feeling deeply moved by the multitude of challenges that society imposes on insanely rich white people, who happen to have snooty British accents and a hoard of servants surrounding them to wipe their asses at a moment’s notice. Poor Elizabeth!
At its core, there is no denying that The Crown is insanely well written, acted, and produced. But what gives the show its “oomph,” what I think is at the heart of its allure, is the moment during each episode where we all look at each other and say, “Gee, did that really happen?” For the most part, these are characters who are still alive, if extremely crusty, and who have certainly been major public figures my whole adult life. And so that does create an inherent fascination even when the stakes are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Every second little Prince Charles appears on screen is ripe with agony knowing the life of misery that awaits him on the road to becoming one of the world’s most sad-sack public figures—and still not even being King when he turns 70 years old. Poor Charles!
But mostly, it’s re-discovering things that happened decades ago, but took place before most of us were born and so were long forgotten in the mists of time. The show manages to make many of them, if not epically important to the tides of history, utterly interesting because these things may have actually occurred in the real world.
Intriguing, but also problematic if you’re writing this show. We’re savvy enough to know at this point in human history that when someone’s life story is transformed for the stage, screen, or movie theater, that Hollywood will feel free to take “dramatic liberties” with the person’s story. This is a polite way of saying Hollywood likes to make shit up. But that’s not such a bad thing, really. Because when telling someone’s story, there is always a worthwhile debate to be had about whether it’s more important to adhere to the facts or to tell a compelling story that captures the essence of what someone’s life meant. That is a spectrum on which there is no absolute right or wrong. Hamilton succeeds because it seems to convey something essential about what his life meant in a compelling musical. It you have ever tried to read the fact-laden autobiography on which the musical is based, you probably cried tears of blood as you tried to push through long passages about obscure people who once rang Alexander Hamilton’s doorbell. But if facts are your thing, you’re going to be a bit disappointed when you start googling around and find our how many creative liberties were taken by the musical.
But the nature of The Crown means that viewers have put it on a much higher pedestal entirely when it comes to accuracy. Indeed, for any such popular biographical account, the show’s fans may be holding it to a standard that is unique. That’s because the magic lies in those “Did that really happen?” moments. Fans don’t want to just be transported by a fictionalized account of royalty. They want to know that events unfolded as they appear on screen, otherwise the story looses a fair bit of emotional punch.
Take the episode where the Kennedys visit Buckingham Palace. The episode recounts how Queen Elizabeth feels diminished by the glamorous Jackie and her hubby JFK, played here by Dexter the lovable serial killer (otherwise known as Michael C Hall). The two seem to connect over their shyness in private, but the queen later hears that Jackie mocked her at party. To soothe her bruised feelings, the Queen boards a plane for Ghana to dance with a black man and save some obscure British interest. Later, Jackie apologizes to the Queen in private and explains that she and Jack are pumped so full of drugs all the time to deal with the stress of being rich, white, and famous that sometimes she says some crazy ass shit. You know how it is, right, girlfriend? Poor Jackie!
Immediately after the episode, my first question, as always: “Gee, did that really happen?” As it happens, apparently several million other humans are asking the same question. When I google for information, the list of links offering answers is infinite:
I mean… “fact checking” a fictionalized television show? And there are “fact checking” posts like these available for each episode. Sometimes it’s the historical facts. Sometimes it’s comparisons of what characters wear in the show compared side-by-side with original photos. But still, the reason these posts are written is because some editors realized that there were huge volumes of Google search traffic being generated as people hunted for answers. Other purely fictional fan favorite shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, generate infinite episode recaps for the same reason. Those recaps exist for The Crown as well. But the fact checking is The Crown’s alone.
In another episode, someone named Lord Altrincham, a weak-chinned, clammy British peer who runs some kind of periodical writes a scathing editorial—no doubt full of “I say!” and “Rather!”—claiming the monarchy is out of touch. The show makes its bid for relevance when the Queen meets with this trembling shadow of a man and complains that she seems to live in an era where anyone can just publish whatever is on their mind. (Like the internet, get it?) Anyway, the Queen accepts some of the Lord Altrincham’s suggestions, including giving her Christmas speech on actual television. Later, she is forced to talk to normal people and nearly gags to death in the process as her mother complains about the inhumanity of it all. Still, at the end of the show, the nice producers felt compelled to add a little note to go ahead an answer that magic question:
Indeed, the second to-last episode of season two, in which Prince Charles is forced to attend the same hellish prep school as his father, has royal watchers in Britain peeing in their teacups over one apparently invented scene. In the episode, there is a flashback to Prince Philip learning that his sister and several family members were killed in a plane crash (this is true). But for reasons too complicated to explain, Philip’s father blames his son for their deaths at a public gathering. The Daily Mail subtly explored the controversy in a story under the headline: “Netflix drama The Crown faces criticism over a ‘monstrous lie’ after blaming Prince Philip for the death of his sister Cecile.” The newspaper added, “This is a truly shocking invention since Prince Philip had nothing to do with his sister’s air flight to Britain. He was in no way responsible for the accident.” Royal historians seem less concerned about the apparently factual depiction of Philip’s family, who live in Germany, being warm and cuddly with the Nazis. Despite this family tragedy, and Philip’s attempts to be less of an ass than his own father, Prince Charles still grows up to be a total wuss.
What’s weird about the demand for accuracy from a television show is that it’s not weird at all. After all, we live in a world where a television reality star has become president and manages to spend all day saying things that are almost completely fiction. We have been cut loose from our informational moorings because we’re not sure we can trust the institutions we used to rely upon to find and verify facts to help us make sense of the world. In hunting for news, we end up reading clickbait manufactured by teenagers in Macedonia, and then unthoughtfully pass it on to friends because it confirms what we already believe about the world.
In this informational world turned upside down, it seems we are craving a story on television where our fiction gets its facts straight. More impressively, the creators of The Crown have perfectly tapped into this instinct by creating stories that succeed because they leave us asking, “Gee, did that really happen?” When our leaders speak in the real world, we assume the answer to that question is probably, “No.” They are just spouting made-up nonsense and many out there have adapted to that. At the very least, we have resigned ourselves to the idea that there seems to no longer be an absolute version of any truth on which everyone will agree no matter how many facts are presented.
But I would like to know if Queen Elizabeth really did share a private lunch with Jackie while the First Lady dished about getting doped up with the President. And we’re counting on folks at places like The Washington Post to dedicate important resources to help us get to the bottom of this.
One can imagine that the next evolution will be a reality-based fictionalized TV show show produced by AMC about the great fictionalizer President Trump. Future generations will gape at episodes of The Donald in awe as he spouts lies and then demand that fact checkers check to see whether it’s true that he told such bold-faced lies. People will plunge into a rabbit hole of fact-checking the lies that were fact-checked by previous generations to prove that somehow none of his fabrications ever seemed to really matter.
And then, our leap into the post-reality world of factual fictional will be complete.
This post was originally published on Medium.