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Palace Porn: Watching 'The Crown'

actress places crown atop her head

“Why are you watching this? I thought you hated all this royalty nonsense.”

I was watching The Crown, the sumptuously mounted British drama series about Queen Elizabeth II whose second season is now streaming on Netflix.

I pondered the accusation. Did I hate “royalty nonsense”? On the one hand, I'm someone who saw The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R so many times in my teens that I still remember whole scenes word for word. On the other hand, I've never been tempted to watch Cate Blanchett's two QE1 pictures or any of those movies about Queen Victoria and the various commoners she apparently dallied with in her dotage – those offerings, to me, smelled a bit too much like cynical efforts to rope in the costume-drama nuts. I liked The Queen, a witty twist on the odd-couple trope: remote, cluelessly traditional head of state vs. brash, self-consciously cutting-edge head of government. But it took me three tries to get through The King's Speech, with its daffy premise that ridding George VI of his stammer was crucial to the war effort.

Good or bad, of course, Academy Award voters love these things. A movie about some poor slob with dyslexia or gout? Forget it. But make him a king and you've got a “prestige picture” – Oscar bait.

Once upon a time, it was unusual for dramas not to be about royalty. (Comedies were another matter.) For centuries, from Oedipus Rex to Lear, going to the theater allowed the powerless to identify with men and women in power. The joys and agonies of the mighty were everyone's joys and agonies writ large. In modern times, when absolute monarchy in the West gave way to elective democracy (and, in some parts, non-elective dictactorship), dramas about ordinary people moved to the fore, while the natural heirs of Shakespeare's Henry V and Marlowe's Edward II centered on the likes of Churchill and FDR. Too often, dramas about the royals of our own day (notably, the multitudinous TV flicks about Princess Diana) are, essentially, celebrity gossip – or, if you wish, royalty porn.

But not always. When you get right down to it, the seriousness of the kingly drama is intricately tied up with on the seriousness with which you take the role of Western sovereigns in an era when their role is almost exclusively symbolic.

At one extreme is the view brilliantly expressed by comedian Doug Stanhope in his 2011 special, Oslo: Burning the Bridge to Nowhere. After gulling his Norwegian audience with a Bush joke, Stanhope turned the joke back on them, asking how they dared laugh at a duly elected democratic leader when they, in fact, have a royal family, proof that they must be “simpletons, living out some Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasyland” nonsense “with kings and princes. Do you have wizards and fairies, too?” How, he queried, could they buy into such “Renaissance festival” foolery?