Season 2 of “The Crown” begins with the Suez crisis and ends with the Profumo affair, taking Queen Elizabeth II and her country from humiliating battlefield retreat to humiliating government sex scandal.
Through most of the 10-episode season on Netflix — the second installment in a proposed 60-episode series encompassing Elizabeth’s long reign — the humiliations are closer to home, however.
For “The Crown” uses history in the service of that most venerable of television genres, the family soap opera. It’s “Dynasty” with better manners, “Downton Abbey” with more castles.
In Season 2, Elizabeth (Claire Foy) stiffens her upper lip and, as the British monarchy’s role begins to come into question in the late 1950s and early 1960s, deals with one after another of her disappointing royal relatives: her inappropriate sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby); her Nazi-sympathizing uncle, the former Edward VIII (Alex Jennings); and, endlessly, her whining, childish husband, Philip (Matt Smith), who bargains his way to the title of prince early in the season.
As in Season 1, it’s soap opera presented with intelligence, taste and high production values, and it’s a pleasure to watch, though the pleasure is perhaps more lulling than it is exciting or truly moving. A reader, complaining when I left the first season of “The Crown” out of my year-end Top 10 list of international shows, described it simply as “impeccable.” That’s exactly its virtue — every detail in place, every idea accounted for.
That virtue flows from the show’s creator, Peter Morgan, who does most of the writing. In his screenplays for the films “The Queen” (2006) and “Frost/Nixon” (2008), he demonstrated a superior ability for fictionalizing history in smart, interesting and credible ways, and that continues in “The Crown.”
He’s not the most dynamic of dramatists, however, and what made those films special was casting — Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen in “The Queen,” Mr. Sheen and Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon.” He needs great actors to put his words in motion, to supply the emotions underlying the history.
In the first season of “The Crown,” he had a great actor, John Lithgow, who enlivened things considerably with his shambling, towering presence as Winston Churchill (even if he probably wasn’t quite right for the role). Season 2 misses Mr. Lithgow, as well as Jared Harris, who played Elizabeth’s father, George VI.
That puts the focus more than ever on Ms. Foy. And while she is quite capable, her strengths are those of impeccability: Each thought, each idea is clearly delineated in her face and posture. She makes sure we don’t miss anything, and she’s engaging, but she doesn’t pack that much of an emotional punch.
You could argue that that’s the point: One of Mr. Morgan’s themes is the repression and self-denial that come with the crown. But playing repression doesn’t mean withholding emotion, as Ms. Mirren demonstrated in “The Queen.” (Ms. Mirren, by the way, has said that she won’t reprise her portrayal of Elizabeth for “The Crown”; Olivia Colman will take over the role in Season 3.)
Season 2 does have its moving and exciting moments, achieved with the help of capable directors like Philippa Lowthorpe and Benjamin Caron. A complicated sequence in which the louche photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode) shoots a portrait of a swooning Margaret, his future wife, while Elizabeth and Philip retire to separate beds, is cleverly handled. Ms. Lowthorpe wonderfully stages an episode-closing shot of Elizabeth and the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton) putting on smiles and going down a receiving line of commoners, invited into Buckingham Palace for the first time.
And because it’s a British prestige production, “The Crown” is dotted with stellar supporting performances. Jeremy Northam finds humor in the smug self-regard of Anthony Eden, the prime minister who succeeds Churchill. Mr. Goode was born to play the seductive Armstrong-Jones and Greg Wise is good as Philip’s uncle, Dickie Mountbatten. In a small role as the unhappy wife of Philip’s private secretary, Chloe Pirrie (a vivid Emily Brontë in “To Walk Invisible”) effortlessly conveys the rage and frustration you suspect Elizabeth must also be feeling.
Not everything Mr. Morgan tries works — an episode involving Elizabeth’s complicated feelings toward Jacqueline Kennedy, and a plot contrivance in which Philip is more closely linked to the Profumo scandal than history would suggest, don’t pan out. But the pleasures of high-class melodrama are always present, as is the comforting notion — increasingly hard to believe — that our leaders can be compassionate, intelligent and exceedingly well behaved.