There’s a scene in the season-three episode of Mad Men “The Arrangements” where Don et al. present an ad for Patio, a diet soda. The ad is meant to mimic the opening of Bye Bye Birdie, where Ann-Margret wears a pert yellow dress and sings right into the camera. The ad is a moment-for-moment dead-on re-creation, and yet at the end of the presentation, the Patio executives look quizzically at the Sterling Cooper–ites and say they hate it. Don’s stunned. “I don’t think there’s any ambiguity here about this being exactly — and I mean exactly — what you asked for.” They admit it is, but they call it a “failure” anyway. No one can quite figure out what’s wrong with the spot. And then Roger says, “It’s not Ann-Margret.” This is a long way of saying The Royals is not Ann-Margret.
The show is a splashy soap set within a fictional version of the British royal family, and somehow it’s not even Patio ad fake Ann-Margret.* It’s some additionally removed version of the real thing, the photocopy of the photocopy, until everything’s mush and you wonder what this document even said in the first place. There are wild parties and topless-photo scandals and surly, petulant princesses and horndog queens and on and on and on, and all I could think was, You know, it’s a lot harder to make Gossip Girl than you think.
Shows like The Royals are supposed to be fun. Ideally a lot of fun. Fun how Empire is fun: big, campy, melodramatic, with a slight wink to the audience. Fun like how Desperate Housewives or Downton Abbey or peak Melrose Place or Dallas is fun. Revenge, even. The Royals is part of the way there from its setting alone (hard to be more over-the-top than royalty), and the mechanics of the plot make perfect soapy sense. But the resulting show is flaccid, weirdly paced, and badly cast. Execution matters.
Elizabeth Hurley stars as the Queen, and she’s giving it her Gossip Girl–honed all, but no one else is up to the task. There’s a lot of skulking and sulking, but on a show like this, you need a Mr. Burns–level finger twiddle or a Looney Toons–style eyebrow waggle. There are two dumbellina secondary royal cousins that I guess are meant to be the comic relief of the series, but they feel like they’re from a whole different, somehow worse, show, and none of the supposedly sexy moments actually feel sexually charged at all. One episode includes a scene where a woman attempts to drive a car and give a blow job at the same time. Like … pull over, lady. There’s a difference between wildly fun and wildly stupid.
Shows with enough energy and identity can easily survive bad acting: Mischa Barton couldn’t keep The O.C. down, and no one on 90210 was exactly robbed of an Emmy nod. I can’t even tell if people are doing terrible accents or are just terrible at talking. Perhaps both? Or maybe the problem is that no one has much to say.
I have no idea how one can squander the melodramatic potential of royal intrigue, and yet here we are. Creator Mark Schwahn also created One Tree Hill, which somehow ran for nine long seasons, so it’s not like crazy plots and banana-town character interactions are outside his area of expertise. Royals is absent any thrill, any of that ticklish delight that makes shows like this pop. We need momentum, or mystery, or intrigue, or vengeance — something. C’mon, Royals. Pound a couple of Patios and regroup.
*There are those who believe the Patio spot failed because Sal, its director, is secretly gay, and thus unable to imbue the ad with the required leering gaze. I disagree! Don, who knows all about hetero leering gazes, praises Sal’s work fully and unambiguously. It really is just not Ann-Margret.↩