The Emmys last night produced several controversies, as usual. The only person of color to win an acting award was Courtney B. Vance, for Lovecraft County, and there were complaints about predictability and a lack of daring. The dominance of Netflix and other streaming services suggests that the once-mighty HBO and other premium cable providers are now fighting for relevance and survival (although we can expect White Lotus to put up a strong showing next year).
But the biggest story came in the regal dominance of The Crown, which swept the field with 11 awards.
The fourth season of The Crown attracted both plaudits and controversy. Emma Corrin’s performance as Diana, which uncannily evoked the Princess of Wales in both look and speech, was deservedly praised, but Gillian Anderson’s overwrought, caricatured performance as Margaret Thatcher, which undeservedly won an Emmy, seemed to suggest that Anderson, clearly no Thatcherite, was attempting to put clear blue water, as it were, between actress and character. And the script’s hints that the disobedient Diana would find herself in trouble courtesy of the British royal family point to an even more turbulent fifth season, dealing with her divorce from Charles, emancipation and subsequent demise.
Despite these quibbles, the program won nearly half of the awards it was nominated for. In some cases, there were multiple cast members up for the same category, though it did not seem to split the vote. Olivia Colman, who has become the much-beloved star of her generation, won Lead Actress for her Queen, and Josh O’Connor deservedly won Lead Actor for his complex, tormented Prince Charles.
Yet some of the other accolades for the show felt tokenistic. Anderson; Tobias Menzies’s award for playing Prince Philip, given that no episode in the series gave him very much to do; the show’s creator Peter Morgan winning an Emmy for the finale, ‘War’, despite its schematic and clunky writing; and, most egregiously of all, the original Elizabeth II actress Claire Foy receiving an Emmy for Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series for a cameo performance totaling around two minutes of screen time and mostly conducted in voiceover.
Very few of the awards that The Crown won seemed especially deserved. It could even be suggested that it didn’t merit Best Drama Series, although when the competition includes Bridgerton and This Is Us, it looks like the best of an indifferent bunch. But it seems increasingly clear that it won many of its trophies out of a sense of noblesse oblige.
The fourth season of The Crown was the first to depict events that many of the Emmy voters would have remembered as recent historical occurrences, and its mixture of traditional royal pageantry and behind-the-scenes gossip skillfully combines high art and low muckraking to enthralling, if inevitably inaccurate, effect. This would undoubtedly have played well with voters.
Yet at a time when Prince Andrew and Prince Harry are arousing anger and horror on both sides of the Atlantic, The Crown is a comforting reminder of the days when the Firm was unassailable. Even as Princess Diana suffered in expensive gowns, her struggles now seem considerably less seismic than what her son and brother-in-law are going through.
Therefore, far from the revelatory scandal that Morgan and his fellow writers and directors might have intended, the true success of the show lies in the nostalgia that it has engendered for a more certain time. Its Emmys victory means that The Crown is long to reign o’er us, indeed. Only the most blinkered of republicans would bet against the recast season five repeating the trick in 2023.