Type keyword(s) to search


Apple TV+'s Palm Royale Completely Misunderstands Camp

Once again, an incredibly extravagant streaming series squanders its incredibly talented cast.
  • Kristen Wiig and Josh Lucas in Palm Royale (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Kristen Wiig and Josh Lucas in Palm Royale (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Apple TV+’s Palm Royale kicks off with the kind of leading image that many a contemporary dramedy billing itself as part murder mystery has used: a body floating in the water, presumably on the verge of death, and the audience — and characters — wondering exactly how we got where we are. It’s a cliche at this point, in a world where The White Lotus and Big Little Lies have managed to semi-legitimize the kind of narrative that would once have been relegated to both daytime and primetime soap operas. And yet it persists, much like the protagonist of Palm Royale, desperate to become someone in a world where she’s treated as no one.

    So begins another tale of social climbing and the fraught politics of existing in society while rich, but one whose premise at least holds some promise. After all, the mere pitch of a show starring Kristen Wiig as Maxine, a perpetually optimistic and ambitious grifter trying to fit into a world run by ladies who lunch (as played by women like Carol Burnett, Allison Janney, Leslie Bibb, and Julia Duffy), is nothing short of a dream come true. And weaving in death and deception while setting it in the late 1960s, in South Florida (Palm Beach to be specific), with an aesthetic design that is distinctly inspired by the film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls? Who could resist a glimpse into the Palm Royale?

    But there’s something amiss in the way creator Abe Sylvia approaches this narrative, trapped in a tonal purgatory that bounces between winking sketch comedy and sincere melodrama at any given moment. One moment you could be laughing at Burnett and Wiig mumbling incoherent words at each other back and forth for a minute straight like it’s a Saturday Night Live bit; the next Ricky Martin, as veteran-turned-bartender Robert, is poorly attempting to wring out tears because the first man he’s opened his heart to in ages has been arrested.

    It’s not entirely dissimilar to the way Sylvia’s script for The Eyes of Tammy Faye confused having people bluntly explain their feelings for any semblance of interiority. And a lack of interiority, in spite of Maxine having her own voiceover, is key to why none of this works. Sylvia and his collaborators — including Tate Taylor, who has spent his career directing women in roles that are more regressive caricatures than actual human beings; Claire Scanlon, whose work in the realm of sitcoms make her episodes feel closer to the outright comedy that the series should have been instead of half-assed dramatics; and director Stephanie Laing, who lacks a distinctive style — simply have no clue how to present this story.

    Palm Royale functions in largely the same vein as the network primetime soaps of yesterday, but without the self-awareness of something like Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, and with the sheen of a prestige drama thrown over it for legitimacy. In a way, the series is a lot like its main character: completely out of place in a world of people who have managed to succeed in spite of the odds against them. This is clear in every single aspect of the show, down to the way it slyly incorporates contemporary politics and buzzwords into how these women in the Nixon era behave. That this also extends to the series’s gay men, who exist to say catty things but are also cruising through James Baldwin books in a feminist library, is no surprise. Like Taylor’s The Help, Palm Royale wants to be progressive while showing how regressive things once were, but, once again, like The Help, it also believes that these women and their lives are just so gosh-darned funny.

    The discovery that the series is based on Juliet McDaniel’s Mr. & Mrs. American Pie is astounding, so loosely adapted is the novel as to be nigh unrecognizable. By no means is diverging from the source material a bad thing, but there is something absurd about knowing that there was already a blueprint (that was completely ignored) while watching a show as aimless and confused in plotting and tone as this one.

    There’s a vapidity to all of the characters, inherent to their characterization as calculating socialites, that undercuts any and all attempts at sincerity. Sylvia certainly tries his darndest to make one question whether any of work on the series is meant to be taken seriously. Palm Royale’s insanely talented cast is pulled left and right when it comes to their performances, with the show’s tonal ineptitude taking the most toll on them. Its sole saving grace may be the underrated treasure that is Leslie Bibb, whose performance is so knowingly calculated as camp and taps into her brilliance as a comedian, and who is lucky enough to never have scripting that forces her into mawkish sentimentality.

    The other actors largely resort to repeating performances and work that they’re known for, with no real effort behind the words they’re saying. Take Laura Dern’s hippie-ish counterpoint to the socialites that serve as the core protagonists; it’s practically a repeat of her work as Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened but without the pointed social commentary and keen sense of human understanding of a Mike White series.

    In the face of lackluster writing and direction, Dern is one of the few cast members that actually wrings some life out of the script, most notably in her scenes with her real-life father Bruce Dern, who plays her in-series father. Even when the directors miscalculate how to present them, there’s a quiet tenderness to their scenes together, largely built on casual conversations that feel completely at odds with the show’s absurdity.

    And absurd it is, with some of its plot points sounding more like bits from Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar than anything remotely serious. Wiig is as adept at making a bit remain hilarious for extended periods of time as she is at delivering nuanced heartfelt performances in work like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Welcome to Me, and The Skeleton Twins, but here, she seems to have no understanding of what approach to take. A scene in which Maxine sings Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” oscillates wildly between outright inanity (think any given SNL sketch) and cloying emotion.

    Palm Royale seems desperate to be the kind of camp artifact that Valley of the Dolls has become by virtue of being as ridiculous as it is serious, but Sylvia misunderstands the difference between camp, which finds pleasure in nuance, and campy, which is all about exaggeration and (frankly tiresome) artificiality. Wiig herself is an expert at both — with Barb & Star being a key example alongside self-aware parodies like MacGruber, The Spoils of Babylon, and A Deadly Adoption — but, outside of her fellow performers, the creative team here is simply unable to tell the difference.

    Palm Royale is content to settle for stories in which good actresses coexist without any interest in what lies beneath the facade of the 1960s. The series gestures at something beneath the surface, whether that’s revolutionary politics (while still being condescending) or the essence of what it means to exist and succeed as a woman, but never engages with any of its themes because it’s too busy haphazardly moving from one plot point to the next, like it’s a soap opera on its last legs.

    The limited series has potential, but it’s disappointing that nothing ever comes of it. In fact, it’s a lot like that opening image: comfortably floating in an abyss of mediocrity, never reaching for greatness or even drowning in its badness.

    Palm Royale premieres March 20 on with three episodes on Apple TV+. New episodes drop every Wednesday. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer, programmer, filmmaker, and co-creator of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones.

    TOPICS: Palm Royale, Apple TV+, Abe Sylvia, Julia Duffy, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Leslie Bibb, Ricky Martin

More Palm Royale on Primetimer: