It’s no accident that E!’s first foray into scripted drama follows the 10th season premiere of reality TV juggernaut Keeping Up With The Kardashians. E! is clearly hoping to entice viewers obsessed with the dramatic world of Kim and co. to check out the even more dramatic world of the fictional British monarchs at the center of The Royals. Yet this new series—which springs from the mind of One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn—takes the wrong lessons from that reality TV hit. Like all good soap operas, Keeping Up With The Kardashians puts characters, not melodrama, first. In a market saturated with reality trash, The Kardashians set itself apart with a genuine sense of heart (almost every episode, including tonight’s, ends with a celebration of the strength of family). The Royals doesn’t yet make a compelling case for why viewers should tune in to this particular piece of trashy television each week. And it needs to find one fast.
The first few moments of tonight’s premiere at least make a good case for why The Royals is the perfect fit for E!—a network obsessed with both the public and private lives of celebrities. Flanked by aides, Elizabeth Hurley’s frosty Queen Helena hurries down the halls of Buckingham Palace, dealing with the frustrating minutiae of ruling a country (symbolically at least). One aide asks if she’s ready and she retorts, “I’m the Queen of England. When am I not ready?” before strutting out before a massive crowd of adoring subjects.
The juxtaposition of public duty vs. private life should be The Royals’ thesis statement (after all that’s pretty much the only reason to center a show on royalty and not just rich people). And in the first few minutes of the premiere, it appears it will be. Rakish Prince Liam (The Chronicles Of Narnia’s William Moseley) hooks up with a commoner who also happens to be the daughter of the royal head of security (Merritt Patterson, playing a half-Brit/half-American literally named Ophelia). Meanwhile debaucherous Princess Eleanor (Alexandra Park, essentially playing Skins’ Effie) drunkenly falls off a table at a Paris nightclub, allowing the press the opportunity to snap—and publish—photos of her crotch. Their exploits could threaten the royal name, a fact that weighs heavily on King Simon (Vincent Regan), the only reasonable member of the entire family.
But then the episode takes a sharp turn for the dramatic. It turns out Prince Robert, the family’s oldest son, has been killed in a military accident, and the unprepared Liam is suddenly thrust in line to be the next King of England. It’s an interesting twist that nicely raises the stakes, but the unseen Robert feels like a plot device not a character. Liam is angry that he’s being asked to speak about his brother in platitudes to the press, but no one can do otherwise in private either. There’s no realistic sense of grief at the heart of the episode (it feels like these people lost a distant uncle, not a core member of the family), and that makes all of the main characters feel shallow.
And while Robert’s death should open up plenty of issues about public vs. private mourning, the writers have trouble tracking anyone’s emotions or writing dialogue that conceivably sounds like something a human being would say. Embarrassed that a footman sees her crying over her son’s coffin, Helena turns away and declares that a Queen isn’t allowed to show emotion. Yet at his public funeral (which is apparently just held in front of Buckingham Palace) she isn’t struggling to hide her deep felt emotions, she’s struggling to pretend she has any as she reapplies lipgloss and shoots barbs at her children. (“Try not to sleep with anyone on the way,” she sneers at Liam after describing how the funeral procession works.) There’s no sense of why these people hate each other so much, and their unexplained nastiness makes it hard to care about any of them.
Though Hurley is clearly having fun delivering her one-liners, Helena is the show’s weakest link; neither the actor nor the writers define her as anything other than “icy bitch.” Helena doesn’t have to be likeable, but she does have to be understandable. When Simon threatens to abolish the monarchy (the other big drama of this overstuffed premiere), she’s deadset against it. But we have no idea what she likes or dislikes about being Queen, so it’s hard to sympathize with her position. Simon may be dreadfully boring, but at least he has an understandable point of view—he wants to save his children from the pressures of living under the royal ball-and-chain. Helena, meanwhile, is just a catty cipher.
When it’s not aiming for titillation or melodrama, the show veers into broad comedy, provided mostly by the ditzy royal cousins played by Lydia Rose Bewley and Hatty Preston, who apparently think they’re starring as Cinderella’s evil stepsisters in a community theater production of Into The Woods. Their father (and the King’s brother) Prince Cyrus (Jake Maskall) is the villain of the series, but he’s so wildly campy (at one point he almost shoots his brother in the head) that he’s at odds with the rest of the show. Also, he forces a maid to give him a blow job and it’s played as a risqué joke.
All of that (excluding the sexual coercion-played-for-laughs) wouldn’t be such a problem if the show were actually fun. But it’s mostly just boring. There’s none of the zippy sexiness that made the first season of Gossip Girl such a hit. And the couples have zero chemistry, which is especially a problem for Liam and Ophelia, whose romance looks to be the emotional heart of the series. (The overly earnest Patterson is by far the worst actor on the series, yet she’s given so much material in this episode.)
Trash TV should be fast-paced, fun, and emotional, but unfortunately The Royals is none of those things. There are a few small character beats—like Simon and Eleanor having a late night chat over pie in the palace kitchen—that hint at something resembling humanity. But right now they are too few and far between. If E! wants to turn this uneven series (which has already been picked up for a second season) into trashy fun, it needs to remember the first rule of soap operas: The audience has to care about the characters.
- Alexandra Park really looks like she could be Elizabeth Hurley’s daughter.
- William Mosely was a highlight in those Narnia movies, but right now the show wants him to be a womanizing Chuck Bass when he’s clearly an awkward Dan Humphrey. Exhibit A: His best (and maybe only) friend is his bodyguard.
- What the hell is going on with that subplot about the King exchanging clothes with his servant in order to explore his kingdom? That part makes sense, but why does the servant have to wear his pajamas and hang out in the King’s bedroom?
- My favorite thing about this whole show is that the royal head of security (Oliver Milburn) apparently lives in a clock tower a la the Hunchback of Notre Dame.