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Netflix's new season of 'The Crown' debuts at a controversial moment

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm going to admit, this is exciting news for me. The new season of Netflix's hit drama about the British monarchy, "The Crown," debuts tomorrow, just two months, though, after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Some critics say the timing of the latest season is distasteful and disrespectful. This set of episodes recreates a time in the 1990s when Princess Diana was estranged from then-Prince Charles, and she was speaking publicly about being mistreated by the royal family. Imelda Staunton plays the queen. And in this scene, she's trying to assure Diana, played by Elizabeth Debicki, that the royal family doesn't hate her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")

IMELDA STAUNTON: (As Queen Elizabeth II) The hostility you imagine we all feel is a figment of your imagination.

ELIZABETH DEBICKI: (As Princess Diana) Is it?

STAUNTON: (As Queen Elizabeth II) All any of us want, Diana, is for you to be happy and one day to be our next queen.

MARTIN: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans is with us to talk this morning about all things "Crown." Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey. It's so hard not to talk in an English accent when you hear...

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: ...Those great quotes from those great scenes.

MARTIN: That's your cross to bear. So...

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...I admit I'm a fan. But there's been a lot of criticism of this season, right? I mean, I'm just going to tick off a few. Actress Dame Judi Dench, very revered in the U.K., has accused the show of crude sensationalism. Former Prime Minister John Major says there are issues with how the show is recreating some events. The British media is piling on. What do you make of all this hubbub?

DEGGANS: Well, I think they're making a point that affects not only "The Crown" but other dramas that are based on real-life events, like, say, Netflix's recent series about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Now, viewers assume that producers have researched these stories and are presenting them with some accuracy, but "The Crown" in particular recreates a lot of situations where there weren't many witnesses, conversations between Queen Elizabeth and then-Prince Charles or between Charles and then-Prime Minister John Major, where Charles kind of hinted that the queen maybe was out of touch and should be sidelined to make room for him to be king before she died. You know, viewers aren't really told how the producers have decided how to script these scenes or what their knowledge is based on. And they're depicting events that many viewers may remember or have lived through...

MARTIN: Right.

DEGGANS: ...Which makes it even more sensitive. I do think that even with disclaimers, viewers are going to assume that what they're seeing is close to the truth, whether or not it actually is.

MARTIN: So how does the new season frame the more controversial moments from the royal family's history?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, this this is a really controversial time. I mean, they're depicting when Charles and Diana's marriage was falling apart in public, while Charles was barely hiding that he'd taken up with one-time love Camilla Parker Bowles. And Dominic West - he's an alum of HBO's "The Wire." He excels at playing these charismatic and compelling men who are also deeply flawed. He plays Charles, does a great job. Elizabeth Debicki channels Diana's glamour and beauty, but she also channels her vulnerability and her capacity for self-pity. You know, I spent a little time in London recently. And I think this season reflects how a lot of people over there see the royal family with complexity, compassion and occasionally some exasperation.

MARTIN: Some have criticized the show as one long advertisement for the British monarchy, right? Is there evidence of that in the fifth season?

DEGGANS: You know, I've said this in the past about other shows. I think there's a difference between lionizing characters and humanizing them. And I think what "The Crown" does so well is humanize the queen and the royal family in a way that might help explain their history and their importance. The show this season is constantly interrogating the question of whether a monarchy is relevant for a modern democracy. And everybody in the royal family, including the queen, is obsessed about whether the public's going to decide to eliminate the monarchy. I think this season asks some really fascinating questions and tells some compelling stories. You just got to remind yourself that it's a historical drama, where the real-life details may have been tweaked or exaggerated to serve the story.

MARTIN: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you, Eric.

DEGGANS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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