As the name would suggest, Undercover Princes is a delightful take on the familiar fish out of water trope. Even more enticing is the fact that the BBC Three reality show, now airing on TLC, was apparently inspired by the 1988 Eddie Murphy movie Coming To America, about an African prince who travels to New York City to find a bride.
Sure enough, there’s an African prince in the mix — or, specifically, a Zulu chief from South Africa — named Africa Zulu (yes). He’s head of a nation of 10 million people, as part of the Onkweni Royal House and looks forward to meeting a “pure British girl” during his stay in the UK. And, as per the show’s title, the trick is that he and his two royal roommates are hiding their esteemed lineage from the potential loves they meet over the course of the three weeks they live together in a flat in Brighton, England.
Alongside Prince Africa is Manvendra Singh Gohil, the Crown Prince of Rajpipla, India. The 43-year-old caused a media frenzy a few years back when he shocked his family and came out as gay, even appearing on Oprah. And while liberated from the expectation to find a bride, Prince Manvendra has found his high-profile status a significant hurdle to dating.
The final roommate is Prince Remigius Kanagarajah of the Royal House of Jaffna, Sri Lanka — though he prefers to go by Remi or “Tom,” for some unclear reason. His ancestors have ruled for five centuries but the handsome prince has been unable to find a wife to secure his legacy. More importantly, he brings his “ceremonial kit” to the Brighton bachelor pad and excitedly shows off his royal garb for the cameras before unsheathing his “ceremonius sword,” that’s also been inexplicably packed.
These three bachelors make for an awkward trio, to be sure. They’re stilted banter upon meeting each other does little to mask the fact that they’re hardly used to sharing space with strangers, let alone cooking, cleaning, and even working. They’re assigned jobs to help give the illusion of working-class normalcy: Prince Manvendra as a housekeeper in a hotel, Prince Remi as a waiter in a diner and Prince Africa as a bar back at a local pub. Needless to say, Africa is the most excited about his workplace given the fact that “all sorts of women, they go to the pub.”
Before they’re even tackling their new day-jobs, the pampered princes attempt a few nights out on the town with very dismal results. It turns out that existing in a rarified world set apart from other humans makes you a little weird. This is especially true when the humans you’re trying to interact with are British twentysomethings having pints at the bar. Take, for example, when Prince Africa ruins a perfect decent string of chat-up lines to a pretty girl by asking if he can touch her hair… because he finds it pretty. Or when Prince Remi repeats the line “Brighton is nice” over and over again to her awkward friend in an effort to start conversation.
The show really finds its legs when the men reach out beyond their comfort zones, as when Prince Africa joins a local rugby team and hits the town for beers after practice. Suddenly, being in the mix of testosterone-fueled, local men ignites his confidence and aids his understanding of UK dating culture, as when he notes, “Oh, so you go in groups? Attack in groups?” Prince Africa is also a skilled hunter, you see, and is already taking notes.
Prince Manvendra has the most isolating of the three jobs as a hotel maid and is also saddled with the fact that he must go it alone in gay bars and clubs. But he’s also the most endearing, by far. His wide-eyed fascination with the first gay bar he visits is absolutely joyful to see. And compared to his heterosexual roommates, he’s a hit everywhere he goes. At one bar, he’s practically breaking hearts left and right by doing little but standing shyly with his man-satchel across him. Compare this to Prince Africa, who forces a shoe salesman to sell him shoes three sizes to big for obvious reasons in between (mysteriously) disparaging women who he thinks are "V-shaped."
The best moments come from the honest strangeness of these three just existing in an apartment together. Whether having to sort out the difference between crunchy and smooth peanut butter or seeking out alltogether misguided fashion tips from each other, it’s riveting to see these pampered princes trying to behave as normal singles. There’s also the fact that Prince Africa is clearly unnerved by Manvendra’s gayness and itching to open up that can of worms before their time as roomies is up. Just take the moment when Africa’s eyes bug out over the fact that Manvendra returns from a shopping trip with corny bachelorette-style coasters showing nude men, and it’s hard to not see some serious roommate drama down the road. It’s unlikely we’ll get to see a scene where a gorgeous babe declares "the royal penis is clean, Your Highness," but watching these three princes fumble their way through Brighton for a few weeks is looking to be memorable experience.