Early in the first hour of Netflix’s two-part, six-episode series “Harry & Meghan,” Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, asks a simple question that kicks off the chronological retelling of her history and romance with Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.
“For the past six years of my life, books are written about our story by people who I don’t know,” she says. “Doesn’t it make more sense to hear our story from us?”
On the one hand, she has a point: The sensationalized, typically untrue coverage of Markle’s day-to-day activities by the British tabloids has created a false narrative around the former “Suits” star and her Royal husband. Stupefying statements online, in print, and on TV contribute to a “toxic” culture (as one of the series’ talking heads rightly calls it), and the couple feels trapped by each salacious headline. Being under such unscrupulous scrutiny would make anyone want to grab back the megaphone and out-shout the loudmouths making money off your lives, which is essentially what “Harry & Megan” does.
On the other hand, I can only imagine series director Liz Garbus — a two-time Oscar nominee who recently helmed another documentary series titled “The Fourth Estate” — had to bite her tongue after hearing Meghan’s rhetorical question. Here, sitting in front of her, is an actor, and an actor’s job is to tell other people’s stories, whether they’re fictional characters, inspired by real people, or based on historical figures. Shouldn’t an actor, then, be able to recognize the value of additional perspectives? Shouldn’t they look at a script, find the motivation for their character, and wonder why this person is doing what they’re doing? Isn’t this how we come to better understand people? To empathize with them? To wrestle with life’s complexity?
Certainly a documentarian can see the value in these questions. Setting aside the genre’s recent moral quandaries, as well as the inherent subjectivity in all attempts to report the truth, there’s still an established process in doing just that — and it does not typically involve the subjects of your documentary hiring you to tell their version of the story. Nor does it require rooting the narrative in a singular perspective that plays like an airing of grievances. No matter how many friends and family members agree to be interviewed — nodding along with the Duke and Duchess’ understandable complaints — and regardless of how infuriating each complaint proves to be, what you’re watching isn’t a documentary. It’s a diary entry. Diary entries can be helpful when they provide untold insights into their subjects, but “Harry & Meghan” is merely a long, redundant recap of two very public lives. And absent any challenging questions from outside the couple’s tidy little love bubble, it’s a dull one at that.
As an innocuous endeavor, at least “Harry & Meghan” reveals itself quickly, stating in the initial title cards that “this is a first-hand account of Harry & Meghan’s story,” before bouncing between recent interviews, news footage, and “never-before-seen personal archives” to recount their lives. And yes, the series does go all the way back to their childhoods. A good 15-20 minutes of the premiere is devoted to Princess Diana, Harry’s mother, with an emphasis on her frustrations with the press. There’s footage of the Princess of Wales sternly yet respectfully asking a photographer to give her family a bit of privacy, which serves as contrast to the subhuman attacks on Harry and Meghan’s personal life decades later (like when tabloids paid neighbors to put cameras in their backyards). It’s no surprise that Harry says, “It’s my job to uncover the exploitation and bribery within our media.”
Setting aside the nagging conflation of lumping British tabloids in with actual journalists (Episode 2 does lay out the differences), coverage of Meghan’s adolescence and upbringing circles around school photos, early ambitions, and her forays into advocacy, before zipping through her acting career. The first on-camera interviews with her mother, Doria, are as loving and protective of her daughter as one would hope. Her father does not take part, for reasons that become obvious in Episode 3 — and are already known to anyone who has kept up with the couple for years.
“Harry & Meghan” isn’t made with die-hard fans in mind. Few fresh revelations are given (at least, through the three episodes that Netflix dropped Thursday), and even fewer established opinions are challenged. When Meghan discusses meeting Harry over Instagram, she claims to have made her decision to date him based on the photos in his feed. “When people say, ‘Did you Google him?'” she says, “No! But that’s your homework: Let me see what they’re about in their feed — not what someone else says about them, but what they are putting out about themselves.”
Not only does this fit the series’ ethos overall a little too snugly — that other people are not to be trusted and the only way to know the truth is to hear it directly from the source — but it’s, quite frankly, unbelievable. Earlier, in a web interview taking place nearly a year before she meets Harry, Meghan is bluntly asked, “Prince William or Harry?” She doesn’t know the difference, and picks Harry off the top of her head. The couple later has a laugh over it, but is the audience really supposed to believe when a literal prince asked her on a date, she didn’t check anything other than his Instagram feed?
Such restraint would be superhuman, so even if it’s true, Meghan needs to be challenged in that moment. The interviewer (presumably Garbus) needs to push back and dig into what it feels like in that instant, when you’re holding your phone, believing the Duke of Sussex is on the other end, and he wants to take you to dinner. How else are we going to believe her? How else are we supposed to fully understand what it feels like for that to happen? It’s a fairy tale moment, but “Harry & Meghan” has no time for fairy tales. It’s on a mission to paint its pair as just another normal couple in love; as people you can relate to; as two humans who deserve to be treated humanely.
That they absolutely deserve such treatment isn’t in question, even before the series devotes nearly every minute to eviscerating the tabloids for their lack of decorum. But “Harry & Meghan” is too polished, too familiar, and, at its core, too unprincipled to be taken as anything more than a carefully calculated public relations piece. The six-part series only came about after the couple signed a multiyear deal with Netflix, and their production company, Archewell Productions, is one of three companies attached to “Harry & Meghan.” Much like recent vanity sports documentaries where the athlete under the spotlight can control what’s said about him, “Harry & Meghan” presents itself like any other authoritative documentary out to set the record straight. Only, it does not abide by what Ken Burns calls “good history.”
“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns said about Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” docuseries when it was released in 2020. “That’s not the way you do good journalism […] and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, [which is] my business.”
More and more people are turning to streaming “documentaries” to better understand trending topics or past events. From true crime to sports to life stories, these shows and movies are shaping how people see the world, and if viewers continue to commingle hagiographies with biographies and documentaries with diary entries, the truth is going to be lost somewhere in between. After all, if these well-watched vanity projects continue to proliferate, their one-sided views could become our popular historical documents. One would think that a couple who’s been so wronged by reporting done in its own self-interest wouldn’t want to contribute to its escalation, but we may have already entered an era where no one can tell the difference.
“Harry & Meghan” Part 1 premiered Thursday, December 8 on Netflix. Part 2 will premiere December 15.