“The Crown” ushers in a new cast, but the Netflix historical drama’s compelling and regal formula — exploring the obligations and indignities associated with the seemingly sun-drenched life of the British Royal Family — remains the same, and indeed has only deepened as the principals advance into middle age.
While Olivia Colman, fresh off her Oscar for playing another queen in “The Favourite,” is perfectly grand in the understated central role as Elizabeth, the most sympathetic and intriguing figures are the assortment of those surrounding her, each of whom wears a different sort of symbolic velvet handcuffs, as illustrated through key events in the 1960s and into the ’70s.
Foremost among those is Princess Margaret, played with boozy abandon by Helena Bonham Carter, who is eventually dispatched on what amounts to a diplomatic mission to the US, where she promptly wows the Americans, none more so than the boorish president, imbued with a fresh sense of down-home vulgarity by Clancy Brown.
In a surprise, though, some of the most sympathetic characters are the men in Elizabeth’s orbit, including her son, Charles (Josh O’Connor), who is trying to experience college life and budding romance under the watchful eyes of, well, the entire country.
The best episode, perhaps, is devoted to husband Philip (Tobias Menzies, more starched than the Tin Man after a rainstorm), whose midlife crisis comes watching the Apollo 11 astronauts walk on the Moon, followed by an opportunity to meet them that yields an out-of-this-world level of awkwardness.
Elizabeth sometimes recedes into the background in the individual hours — which provide an episodic tour through key moments in her long reign — but occupies center stage after the tragic 1966 disaster in the Welsh town of Aberfan, when her “We don’t do that” response in terms of public statements of sympathy and grief proves tone-deaf for a country in mourning.
Once again, writer-producer Peter Morgan deftly explores how the Royals are steeped in tradition but tossed about by the shifting conventions of the times, including a more enlightened world and evolving culture. The series also continues to be beautifully cast, which beyond the principals includes Jason Watkins as Prime Minister Harold Wilson — whose relationship with an initially wary Elizabeth is among the season highlights — and “Game of Thrones'” Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten.
At first glance, frankly, the whole idea of building this sort of venture around the Royal Family seemed almost redundant, given the extent to which they are already under a media microscope.
With its new stars, however, “The Crown” hasn’t missed a beat, creating a fascinating window into these lives of utter privilege, and the uneasy heads that go with them.
“The Crown” begins its third season Nov. 17 on Netflix.