The Crown: The Complete First Season (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD)
The most expensive Netflix original series to date follows the life of Queen Elizabeth in a lavish drama expected to ultimately span six or more seasons, focused on a decade or so per season. Claire Foy plays the Elizabeth in The Crown: The Complete First Season (2016), which follows her from her marriage to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith) and her ascension to the throne in 1952 at the age of 25 after the unexpected death of her father, King George VI (Jared Harris) through her rapid learning curve through the decade.
The show was created and written by Peter Morgan, who earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay The Queen (about Elizabeth in the 1990s), and he builds each episode around a key moment in history for Elizabeth and for the country. The title of the show cuts to the heart of the matter: it’s about the woman who takes the Crown, yes, but ultimately it is about service to the Crown and the sacrifices made to preserve its position of authority and symbolism. It’s also a portrait of England after the war, still in hands of old men governing things as they had 20 years ago, and a young Queen and Duke (Phillip is not yet a Prince) who have more modern ideas. The tension between tradition and modernity, and between public appearances and private lives, is central to the drama.
It’s one of the best historical British dramas ever made, the best of British TV drama backed by the budget of Netflix, giving it a scope that even the most lavish BBC production could not match. The result isn’t splashy but it is vast, with an enormous scope, and it is intelligent, thanks to Morgan’s writing and nuanced direction from Stephen Daldry and others.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (Warner DVD, Warner Archive Blu-ray)
Nine years after the beloved dramedy Gilmore Girls left the air at the end of a successful seven-season run, Gilmore girls Lorelai and Rory returned to the small screen in a collection of four 90-minute films (one for each season in a year) written and directed for Netflix by the show’s creators, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino.
Lorelai (Lauren Graham) is still in Stars Hollow, running her boutique inn and living with the curmudgeonly but lovable Luke (Scott Patterson), 32-year-old Rory (Alexis Bledel) is at loose ends as a freelance journalist bopping between New York, London, and Stars Hollow and carrying on an affair with an old boyfriend (Matt Czuchry), and Lorelai’s mother Emily (Kelly Bishop) struggles with life after the sudden death of her husband (Edward Hermann passed away before the show began production).
There isn’t a lot of plot to the stories, which put relationships at the center of this run, and Rory comes off self-absorbed and shallow and even spoiled as she flits from project to project and avoids committing herself to anything. Otherwise it’s like a whirlwind compression of a season into six breezy hours of snappy dialogue, quirky humor, and favorite characters putting their eccentricities front and center in Stars Hollow town meetings and seasonal events, and practically every major character from the show makes an appearance through the course of the production, from Rory’s best friend Lane (Keiko Agena), now a wife and mother, to town oddball Kirk (Sean Gunn) to Babette (Sally Struthers) and Gypsy (Rose Abdoo), with notable appearances by neurotic Paris (Liz Weil) and, in the final episode, Melissa McCarthy as Sookie. Fans of the original show will enjoy the return trip, which recaptures the chemistry and humor and wit of the original season.
This Is Us: The Complete First Season (Fox, DVD)
In the age where cable TV has overtaken networks as the home of the best, smartest, and more innovative drama, the hit family drama This is Us is the rare network prime time show that is both a critical and popular favorite. It had stellar ratings and won two Emmy awards out of ten nominations, and it appeals to emotion without turning cloying or melodramatic.
The narrative weaves past and present to frame the story of the three adult Pearson siblings, not quite triplets but all born on the same day, with their experiences growing up as the children of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) Pearson, who gave birth to triplets but lost one during delivery and adopted an orphaned boy brought to the hospital the very same day. Sterling K. Brown is Randall, the adopted son and an African-American raised in a white family who has become a successful corporate accountant, Justin Hartley is Kevin, a successful but frustrated sitcom actor, and Chrissy Metz is Kate, Kevin’s fraternal twin and devoted assistant.
The series opens with the emotionally-guarded Randall tracking down his biological father and opening himself up to a relationship, Kevin determined to reinvent his career while realizing that he’s always relied on Kate to manage his life, and Kate struggling with her weight and navigating the first serious romance of her life (the amiable Chris Sullivan). As the story brings Kevin and Kate back to New York from Los Angeles, Kevin has to overcome his resentment of Randall and reconnect with his brother and Randall has to come to terms with his mother’s choice to keep his father’s identity secret.
The series was created by veteran screenwriter Dan Fogelman, whose credits include Pixar features and mature comedies Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Danny Collins, which use humor to explore family drama, but This Is Us uses the TV drama format to explore more complicated relationships over time, evolving through the present day stories and contrasting them with the formative years of the siblings. It also dangles a twist throughout the season: Jack and Rebecca faced marital troubles and Jack died while the kids grew up but the details teased out through the show. The clever construction manages to tease mysteries throughout the series but the focus is always on the characters and their relationships. The show’s balance of family drama, TV melodrama, storytelling ingenuity, and unabashed emotionality earned a devoted following and it has already been renewed through a third season.
18 episodes on five discs on DVD only, plus “The Aftershow” featurettes with the cast and creators discussing each episode.
This Is Us: Season 1 [DVD]