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US fans of The Crown are loving the Harry and Meghan royal soap opera

Andrew Gumbel
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA

Not so long ago, American fans of The Crown thought they had to wait until 2022 for their next dose of British palace intrigue, upper-crust family feuding, controversial love matches, vindictiveness and betrayal. But now, with Oprah Winfrey’s heavily trailed interview with Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, producing fireworks on both sides of the Atlantic even before it airs on Sunday night, the royal saga is back in full swing and commanding attention like never before.

Related: Prince Harry and Meghan v the Palace: timeline of a royal crisis

The back-and-forth of the past several days – Meghan accusing Buckingham Palace of “perpetuating falsehoods”, according to one of several teaser trailers for the Oprah interview, and Palace sympathizers striking back with allegations that Meghan bullied her staff before she and Harry stepped away from their royal duties and left the country – may be splitting public opinion back in Britain. But in the United States, anglophiles and amateur royal watchers are simply sitting back and lapping up the show.

The New York Times is calling the Oprah two-hour extravaganza “one of the most anticipated, and most heavily spun, television interviews in recent memory”. According to CNN, the Sussexes have stolen the show even before the interview has aired – another way of saying that, whatever you think of Harry, Meghan, or the people Harry refers to as his “grandparents”, they are shaping up as an unimagined new pot of ratings gold.

Certainly, the CBS broadcast network is milking the event for all it is worth, touting the interview as the best Oprah’s ever done and filling its teasers with cut-aways of Oprah exclaiming: “You’ve said some pretty shocking things here.” In an age when once-mighty US networks are struggling for relevance against cable news and multiple streaming services, this is shaping up to be CBS’s most memorable night in decades.

None of this hype and excitement was even close to a given last summer when Harry and Meghan moved into the gated splendour of their new home in Montecito, the lush, gilded hillside village near Santa Barbara where they are surrounded by entertainment stars in palaces of their own including Ariana Grande, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah herself.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Sussexes were denied any meaningful public coming-out party. Despite signing splashy production deals with Netflix and Spotify, it looked for a while as though they might go to the way of David and Victoria Beckham – big celebrities back home who, in 2007, quickly got lost in a cast of thousands in star-studded southern California.

Things changed in a hurry last month, though, after Meghan won her privacy lawsuit against the British newspaper the Mail on Sunday, a victory that apparently emboldened the Sussexes to come out of seclusion and introduce themselves to their new host country with some assurance that they wouldn’t be hounded by the paparazzi the way they felt they were in Britain.

At every step since, they have managed to break the rules of royal etiquette and simultaneously present themselves as likable and approachable, a balancing act most memorably last achieved by Harry’s mother, Princess Diana.

Related: 'A symbolic moment': Harry and Meghan's Oprah interview marks turning point

In an appearance on James Corden’s Late Late Show at the end of February, Harry appeared not in a suit but in casual clothes (royal faux pas number one). He rode in an open-top tourist bus through Los Angeles (faux pas number two), admitted that he had watched and didn’t mind The Crown (number three) and, much to Corden’s amusement, disclosed that Her Majesty had sent her great-grandson Archie a common kitchen waffle maker for Christmas (number four).

Not every American royal enthusiast is conversant with the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, but there is some basic understanding that Meghan Markle, as a divorced American without aristocratic connections, is seen in royal circles as a faux pas in and of herself. That she is biracial and worked as an actor before her marriage are almost certainly strikes against her too – more problematic, to a certain way of thinking, than the strikes against Simpson, who was a segregationist and Nazi sympathizer rumored to have had an affair with Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in a scene from The Crown.
Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in a scene from The Crown. Photograph: Liam Daniel/AP

In the US, of course, Meghan represents the home team and elicits none of the negative feelings that show up in British opinion polls. The relative lack of formality that she and her husband display is seen as appealing, not off-putting. American audiences are not remotely offended that she would refer to Buckingham Palace as “the firm” – just as, more than a quarter-century ago, they did not stop loving Diana after she was caught calling the Windsors “that fucking family” in an intercepted phone call.

The comparison with Diana is inescapable, not least because viewers of The Crown, whose fourth season dropped on Netflix last November, have been left at the cliffhanger moment in 1990 when Margaret Thatcher is about to be booted from Number Ten and Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles is imploding, to the horror of Queen Elizabeth and the traditionalists surrounding her.

The real-life Diana became convinced that the establishment was out to get her, and Harry and Meghan appear to feel similarly – the difference being, as the teaser trailers reveal, that Harry is grateful not to be facing the storm alone, as his mother was forced to, and determined not to see the same tragic history repeat itself.

The past week would appear to bear him out, as the Palace, seemingly undistracted by Prince Philip’s hospitalization, has launched an unprecedented investigation into Meghan’s interactions with her staff and intimated that, three weeks after the brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, she was spotted wearing earrings given to her by the man the US intelligence services now blame for the killing, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In response, Meghan’s supporters have denied any wrongdoing and pointed out that Buckingham Palace has never seen fit to launch an investigation into Prince Andrew and the many unanswered questions surrounding his relationship to the late child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

To American audiences run ragged by all manner of recent challenges – the pandemic, school closures, power failures during a Texas deep freeze, and an enduringly toxic domestic political environment – all this intrigue comes not as another helping of toxicity but as welcome light entertainment.

“Viewers could never find a soap opera that is better made, better acted or more richly envisioned,” Hank Stuever of the Washington Post raved recently about season four of The Crown. The way things are going, Oprah, Harry, Meghan and the crusty establishment they are railing against might be better still.