I’ve been asked several times, now, what I think of Downton Abbey and The Crown, so I think the answer deserves to be immortalised on the internet.
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Firstly, this is just one opinion. I’m not here to tell you that if you think differently from me, you’re wrong. I’m just here to let you know my experiences watching these shows, and maybe get a conversation going.
Secondly, I adore both of these shows. So watch them both.
Downton Abbey and The Crown are both historical dramas (yes, yes, one is fiction and one follows very real people and events). This satisfies my fascination with different historical periods. What interests me most about these shows are little things that reflect the historical era we’re watching – the familiar, yet strange clothes they’re wearing, the little things they say that would be taken as racist or sexist today, the way they sit down to their meals. I love seeing where our society has come from and how we’ve evolved, even over only a few decades. Both of these shows pay great attention to their historical details to successfully take you back in time.
Now, let’s address the fact that Downton Abbey is historical fiction, while The Crown is based on real people and events.
Doesn’t the fact that The Crown tells the story of a living monarch make the show itself so much more intriguing??? I might be getting a little meta here, but I love it! This is where the English major in me goes wild.
The whole time I was blasting through The Crown (I managed to stretch it out over three days), I was asking myself, “Has the queen watched this?” “Did the producers ask for her approval?” “Would they have gone ahead anyways even without her approval?” “Did the royal family help with making the show accurate?” “Where did they get all this intimate information from?” “Is Queen Elizabeth on the production team???”
Okay, that last one is highly unlikely, but I am having so much fun with the conjecture over how much fact and how much artistic license has gone into this show!
But because The Crown is based on real events, it’s a rather slow moving show, even by historical fiction standards. I would never regard The Crown as being plot-driven. But that’s something I am entirely okay with because where the plot slows down, everything else about the show speeds up, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Instead, The Crown focuses on human emotion and interaction. We look deeply into Elizabeth’s inner conflict between being herself and being a monarch. We look past the bulldog that is Winston Churchill and catch a fascinating glimpse of the vulnerable man (John Lithgow is SLAYING this role!). We’re feeling torn as to whether we hate the king who abdicated, or whether we feel sorry for him. Instead of plot running the show, characterisation takes the lead.
Meanwhile, Downton Abbey works very much like a soap opera. There is drama at every turn. Gasp! So-and-so’s pregnant! Gasp! So-and-so has been arrested! Gasp! So-and-so died! Hugely plot-driven, thus making the show move much faster than The Crown. It makes for a very entertaining hour, one that we don’t want to end. The story is less about emotional turmoil (although there is plenty of that) and more about the actions each character takes in response to the things happening around them.
Other things that make both of these shows great: the acting (Emmy’s all around!), the music (I bought the sheet music for Downton Abbey, and, hello, can anyone top Hans Zimmer???), the sets, the writing, the costumes, etc. etc…
But what makes The Crown stand apart for me is the atmosphere of the entire show. Each episode is an hour long piece of art. I’m thinking of how they’ve spliced scenes together to mirror each other, or how they’ve captured the landscape, or how they’ve played with cinematography. There’s one scene in particular that I remember my jaw dropping open for. There is a cut to a sky blue back drop and the screen is littered with gold confetti falling in slow motion. Just that shot alone is mesmerising with the colours and the music. Then it cuts to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in the car, also in slow motion, waving to the crowd, and Elizabeth turns to look at her husband, whom she has been arguing with lately and some strange look full of mixed emotions crosses her face, so subtly that you need to watch it in slow motion to catch it.
Gah, it’s crazy good! I was in awe of those twenty seconds. And that’s not the only strangely beautiful moment in that show. It’s those moments, that artistry, the careful consideration of the deeper emotions behind every action that draws me towards The Crown. It’s how they’re able to spend an entire episode on Churchill taking his portrait because we’re learning about the hidden aspects of his life. It’s how they show us a royal couple, but turn them into humans just like us. It’s how meaningful and beautiful every moment of the show is.
To be fair, The Crown has only been out for a few months, whereas Downton Abbey has finished it six season run. Maybe I’m just excited by the newness of The Crown. But part of me thinks that, if The Crown continues on this path of considering the artistry of film, and the complexity of human emotion, I will continue to favour it over Downton Abbey.
Any thoughts? Let me know if you disagree or agree on any points!
Oh, and go watch both of these shows.