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No one is expecting The Royals to be a thought-provoking, Emmy-winning drama. E! is, after all, the network that brought us the Kardashians and endless red-carpet arrivals. Of course The Royals isn’t the next Mad Men. But it’s also not the next Revenge or Gossip Girl, which is a problem.
Americans have long been obsessed with British royalty. So, in theory, it’s smart that for its first scripted drama, E! has turned the monarchy into a high-octane version of Dynasty (Joan Collins will even guest star in a future episode). But the series is loud and bombastic, with thumping music, far too many montages and tons of overwrought slow-motion action; the hourlong drama often plays like an extended MTV music video interspersed with dialogue.
And while the real royal family has had its share of scandals, they’ve got nothing on these fictional residents of Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth Hurley does some fantastic vamping as Queen Helena. She’s the mom of three adult children, but still wears a sexy corset under her clothes, goes to bed with full eye makeup on and is fond of saying things like “I’m just a bitch with money and power” (“bitch” being a word favored by all the characters).
Helena’s husband, King Simon (Vincent Regan), the only level-headed one of the bunch, isn’t so sure his country needs a monarchy anymore. In the pilot, Helena and Simon’s oldest son, Robert, is killed in a military accident. That leaves the King and Queen with their troubled twins: Eleanor (Alexandra Park) is a train wreck of a princess who is prone to drugs, has a penchant for getting herself into blackmail situations and is not fond of wearing underwear; her brother, Prince Liam (William Mosely), is extremely fond of the ladies and definitely hasn’t been behaving as if he’s the next King of England.
The King’s brother, the dastardly Prince Cyrus (Jake Maskall), lusts for the throne with all the subtlety of Scar from The Lion King. He uses his power to curry sexual favors from just about anything that moves. Cyrus’ dim-witted daughters, Maribel (Hatty Preston) and Penelope (Lydia Rose Bewley), teeter around as if they were Edina and Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous. Upon hearing the King’s plan to abolish the monarchy, they worry that they’ll end up Canadian and poor, “just like Justin Bieber.” They’re great comic relief on a show that doesn’t need any.
Add in Liam’s ex-girlfriend, Gemma (Sophie Colquhoun), who has made a beeline back to him now that her ex-boyfriend is the next king, and this all sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. The series commits the worst offense of all: It’s interminably boring. By the third episode, Helena and Eleanor are staging competing fashion shows — not exactly riveting television.
Series creator Mark Schwahn knows how to weave a good guilty pleasure. He’s the man behind One Tree Hill, which ran for nine seasons. And even though the majority of the characters act like petulant teenagers, there’s something missing here — the series lacks oomph.
The drama truly falters when it tries to get serious, as when the King talks about how being a royal is dangerous work and he won’t lose “another son or daughter to this.” Even on a campy soap opera, viewers need to be invested in and care about the characters. That’s extremely hard to do here, since no one behaves like an actual human being. There’s no real grief over Robert’s death. Much of the acting vacillates between wooden and overly theatrical.
The show’s main romance is also a problem. Liam fancies the personality-free Ophelia (Merritt Patterson), the daughter of Ted (Oliver Milburn), the King’s head of security. First of all: Ophelia? Who names their child after a tragic Shakespeare character? Helena wants to keep Ophelia away from Liam, setting up a whole star-crossed lovers situation. But it’s hard to get interested in their relationship, since Patterson and Mosely have zero chemistry. In one upcoming episode, Ophelia attends a royal garden party and decides to take Gemma on by out-drinking her. That doesn’t even really make sense, and results in her projectile vomiting on Liam — which is just plain gross.
What the show is really missing is an overarching mystery that would make viewers want to tune in each week. In the pilot, there’s talk of Robert’s mysterious death; then it’s never brought up again.
E! already picked up the series for a second season. But it’s hard to imagine wanting to spend that much time with these royals.
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