The Crown sparkles on its second outing

When the first season of The Crown (Netflix, on demand) took its bow, there was no shortage of adjectives available to herald it: this was, said most television critics in unison, the best television program of the year, and perhaps even the best television drama in recent memory.

So where does that leave a second season, struggling to find oxygen on the top rung of the ladder where the air is naturally thin and the adjectives don't rain down with the force of emeralds plucked from a handy tiara?

For the second outing of The Crown, the fortunes are mixed, as the audience tries to get a sense of the show in its longer term narrative, and the show itself tries to retain its certain footing despite an avalanche of press noise that is gorgeously complimentary but equally undermining.

The first season sits as - to borrow a phrase much loved in the superhero genre - a sort of origin story for Queen Elizabeth II. And in many respects she is a superhero within its framework, stepping into the centre of her world with the world outside in turmoil and using an inexplicable magnetism to slowly pull the pieces of the jigsaw together, until the picture is perfect.

The second season steps forward in time - it is set between 1956 and 1963 - and layers on the shade. The world is fracturing once more, as the Suez crisis commands the headlines and Britain is engulfed in the Profumo affair, but the magnetic power of royalty for the first time falters, as Elizabeth (Claire Foy) realises that there has been a shift of values and that capital D deference is a thing of the past.

If season one was Elizabeth's story, then season two unequivocally belongs to Philip (Matt Smith) and Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), the Queen's husband and sister, respectively. This is the story of how they find their place - successfully or not - within the larger framework of what is fast becoming a modern royalty machine. "The firm", as the Queen was wont to call it in the giddy 1980s.

Smith's Prince Philip is a man at sea - literally and figuratively - trying, in an era where a man naturally felt it would be his birthright to lead, to find a place in an environment where the opposite is true. Margaret, meanwhile, must carry the burden of a broken promise, and is forced to leave behind the love of her life, Peter Townsend, and instead focuses on Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), who she will eventually marry.

The Crown is, essentially, Dallas with bigger diamonds. That is not a criticism - the greatest of Shakespeare's tales were turgid and tragic family dramas - but a reflection of the strength of the writing. In the hands of a lesser mortal The Crown would be reduced to slammed doors and crocodile tears.

Under Peter Morgan's deft hand, the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary, much like The Walking Dead elevates the frequently inanimate zombie genre, or indeed Game of Thrones somehow persuades you it is more than a televised game of Dungeons and Dragons.

And that is achieved, in all three cases, not by abuse of scale, or throwing money into the moment, though all three shows have notably high budgets. It is achieved instead in quiet moments, in stolen glances and lingering silences, in an intimacy which is unusually rare for a medium that prides itself on proximity to its audience.

The Crown shines best not in the brightest glare, but when caught by a solitary beam of light.

This story The Crown sparkles on its second outing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.