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‘The Crown’ loses more of its luster as its final season turns to Princess Diana

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Blame it on the subject matter, or perhaps merely the difference between more recent events and decades-old ones, but “The Crown” has saved the worst for last, following its disjointed fifth season with a sixth that feels more tabloid-y and less stately. After sweeping the Emmys with the previous iteration of its cast, the Netflix drama looks ready to limp across the finish line unbowed, but slightly bloodied.

Splitting the final season into two parts, the first four episodes focus on a pair of relationships in the wake of the divorce that shook the world. Yet because the audience knows what’s coming, there’s an almost morbid quality to this batch of shows, not really helped by the framing device that writer-producer Peter Morgan employs, or the flights of fancy in which he later indulges.

While it’s still a splendid cast, center stage inevitably belongs to Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) as she begins her romance with wealthy heir Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), who, despite being engaged, is egged on by his imperious father Mohamed Al Fayed (Salim Daw) to woo her. The elder man sees the princess as a priceless bauble, one that will bring the family a level of respect that, despite his money, has eluded them.

Elsewhere, in one of those epically cringe-y moments, Charles (Dominic West) practically pleads with his mother (Imelda Staunton) to attend the 50th birthday party that he’s throwing for Camilla (Olivia Williams), realizing that the Queen’s presence would go a long way toward validating his companion in the eyes of a skeptical public.

Elizabeth and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) have grown even more tone-deaf to the modern demands of the monarchy and can’t hide their irritation over what their son has wrought. For his part, Charles – treated more charitably than in Season 5 – recognizes that he’s in a public-relations battle with his ex, proclaiming to his handlers, “This is war,” before adopting a more measured tone.

As for Diana, she experiences the pain of seeing her efforts to do good charitable works eclipsed by the sensational coverage of her personal life. The show also takes time to delineate how the financial incentives dangled in front of the paparazzi – after pictures of her sold for record sums – ultimately led to her death, leaving plenty of accomplices, including the public that ate all that up before pivoting to mourn her.

The problem, for anyone who was alive and vaguely sentient in 1997, is that we’ve seen this movie before – indeed, probably multiple versions of it, including documentaries and even a musical. While “The Crown” remains impeccable in its commitment to detail, the nuanced characterizations of the Royals in these latest seasons have occasionally given way to near-caricatures, a description that also applies to the pressure Mohamed Al Fayed exerts on his son.

The initial genius of “The Crown” stemmed from its ability to flesh out fascinating chapters in British history, roughly a decade at a time, taking the audience inside the palace walls in a way that humanized – or at least shed light on – the most privileged people on the planet.

The fifth season premiered not long after Queen Elizabeth II’s death, which somewhat obscured its shortcomings. Whether it’s the Royals or the filmmakers who lost their golden touch, after all those well-deserved laurels “The Crown” and its perfectly stiff upper lips remain intact, but reputationally, the buildup toward the finish has dulled at least some of its luster.

“The Crown” begins its sixth season November 16 on Netflix. The final six episodes will premiere on December 14.

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