A month ago, Amazon optioned Lord of the Rings for a reported $250 million, in the hopes that it will turn into the next Game of Thrones. That decision resulted in many dropped jaws, and a few critics who noted that, in all likelihood, the next Game of Thrones will look nothing like Game of Thrones. The Sopranos, after all, did not ignite a wave of popular shows about Jersey mobsters; Lost famously sparked a series of failed Lost-alikes, each messier and less successful than the last. Suffice it to say, I am dubious that Lord of the Rings, the OG Game of Thrones, will also be the Next Gen version.
But what if instead, the next Game of Thrones were already here? What if it had many of the same storytelling obsessions — family, power, royalty, a changing world, betrayal, trust, and even a throne! What if it also had a sumptuous, expansive world, portrayed with aching detail? What if it was about a woman trying to take on masculine power structures? What if it was a show that often looped political intrigue through the soap operatic structures of sexy hookups? What if it even had mascot dogs?
The show I’m describing is The Crown, and yes, many of Game of Thrones’ most notable features are absent. For instance, there are no dragons. The Crown also lacks magic, violence, and 17 different diverging plot threads that only tenuously link back to one another after years of separation. Just as vitally, The Crown has a few elements that will always make watching it feel different from watching Game of Thrones — it has much more self-contained episodes, for instance, which makes watching it feel less like watching a runaway train. It’s also on Netflix, and watching the whole season at once rather than weekly is an important difference. The Crown has a smaller main cast, which means that it’s always going to feel more intimate, even though it covers a vast scope of history on a huge, global stage.
The more I thought about it, though, the more it began to seem like The Crown and Game of Thrones might scratch similar TV itches. The idea of a family caught inside a huge political mechanism feels central to both series. They’re shows about the person behind the figurehead, and the difficulty of balancing your own needs versus the family’s needs. They’re both shows about emotional distance, and the sense that people are willing to sacrifice their relationships with one another in order to hold onto some abstract vision of control. They’re shows about children, and how to parent the kind of next generation who will live up to all your expectations, and how to have a relationship with a child whose rise to power will probably only come once you die.
But those deep resonances don’t even touch on the thing that first made me think about comparing the two shows. They’re sometimes great, sometimes pretty mixed, and yet for both shows, the weak spots don’t really matter. They’re both series that exist in some ineffable place, some place beyond any specific detail of what happens in them. If you’re excited to watch The Crown, you are there. You’re going to sit down and feel it wash over you, regardless of the points where you yell at Philip for being a doofus or wonder why we spend so much time without Margaret. The same is true for Game of Thrones, I think. It’s a show that’s become more about the enjoyment of spending time in that world, of returning to the lives of those characters, and less about the success or failure of any particular beat. (Obviously that would have to be true, because especially for Game of Thrones, there are parts where almost none of it makes sense.)
What I’m describing, really, is fandom — the unknowable place beyond which love for a cultural object turns into an almost religious faith, an unshakable fondness that hears objections and criticisms, and recognizes them, and accepts them, and loves anyhow. (There’s another version of faith and of fandom that short circuits and refuses to accept criticisms of any kind, but the version I’m describing is healthier and better.) And the idea of fandom is critical to thinking about both of these series, because they’re fundamental to the deep DNA of their appeal — Game of Thrones and The Crown are shows that came into the world with a predetermined set of fans.
Both shows came with a group of people primed to love them if they were any good at all. Game of Thrones the TV show came with a guaranteed cadre of interested watchers, people who already knew and loved the books and who were excited to see their favorite characters brought to life in new ways. The books then helped spur enjoyment of the show — until recently, if you wanted spoilers, you could just turn to the books and join the huge world of the ASOIAF ecosystem, ready and waiting for you. It fed your fervor. And when it became clear that Game of Thrones the show was often really great, that audience’s fervor helped drive a bigger mainstream awareness — its ratings grew by leaps and bounds after its first two seasons — and turned that specific, niche genre fantasy show into a broader cultural phenomenon.
The first parts of that formula are also absolutely true for The Crown, which came into the world with a guaranteed initial audience of period drama fans, royal family enthusiasts, and Anglophiles. They knew and loved the characters — er, people — already, and much of The Crown’s appeal comes out of taking a known story and watching it dramatized in a newly accessible way. And the “spoilers” are all there ready for you as well. All it takes is a short hop over to Wikipedia to look up what actually happens in Tony and Margaret’s marriage, and almost anyone watching The Crown will know enough of the Charles/Diana/Camilla story to know that big things are on the horizon. (In its own way, looking ahead to that chapter of the story is not too far from anticipating the Red Wedding.) The only missing step for The Crown, so far, is the final one, the part where fervent fandom of a genre TV show then leaps out of its small niche and becomes a runaway mainstream touchstone.
The two shows are remarkably alike, and I think The Crown has nearly all the qualities that prime it for the same kind of widespread, culture-saturating intensity that has come to characterize Game of Thrones. But if it doesn’t happen, if The Crown gets stuck inside its niche genre well and fails to leap outside its period drama identity, I will always wonder if it’s because, in spite of all their parallels, there’s a fundamental difference in how we understand The Crown’s niche and the Game of Thrones niche: men watch fantasy epics with dragons and violence, and women watch shows with ballgowns. Never mind that in life, there are scores of female Game of Thrones fans, and male fans of The Crown. Never mind that The Crown is actually a low-key devastating referendum on masculinity, while Game of Thrones has increasingly featured powerful, dominating women. In our collective unconscious, Game of Thrones is a dude show and The Crown is a show for the ladies. And in case you missed the memo, the dude shows are the important, mainstream ones.
Lately, that diminution of lady shows has begun to unspool just a little. A few of the most prominent series from 2017 were female-led stories, including shows like Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies. But I fear The Crown has an uphill climb toward mainstream resonance in a way those shows did not. Unlike either of them, it has no mystery frame or dark dystopian premise to weave violence into its story line (violence, of course, being a classic dude show feature). Neither does it have the easy contemporary accessibility of a weep-fest like This Is Us: it is gossipy and costume-y, two unshakably female-associated traits.
If The Crown fails to become the same kind of cultural phenomenon that Game of Thrones has, I will always wonder if it’s because it’s sprung from a niche genre well that we traditionally consider as the province of women and refused to see it as a show with broad appeal. In its best moments, The Crown is a fascinating and totally engrossing look at how celebrity and power and image all get wrapped up with identity and humanity. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate subject for the current moment. And for the Game of Thrones sexposition fans, there are even sexy threesome scenes! But I wonder if that same current moment — the one that still has a hard time conceiving of women’s stories as, simply, stories — will also be the thing that holds The Crown back.