ROYALSHamlet Does Housewives: Season one of E!’s The Royals

The only time I have ever walked out of a professional theater production was at the intermission of a particularly bad version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.  I lasted just ten minutes while streaming E!’s The Royals before I reached for the remote.

Part of me wanted to know if the princess would die of an overdose before the end of the first episode. Most of me wanted to reclaim my Saturday afternoon while I still could. I convinced myself to continue to watch the train wreck in the hopes that there would be some redeeming royal fairytale underneath the crass language. Instead, the soapy drama turned into a Shakespearean tragedy knockoff.

For those that missed the first season when it aired on E! in early 2015, The Royals arrived on Amazon Prime just in time for viewers to catch up before E!’s premiere of season two airs on November fifteenth.

On the surface, the idea of a fictional royal family reminiscent of an older William and Kate seems interesting enough. The royal family has been a topic of playwrights and poets for the last thousand or so years. How bad could it be?

E! is known more for its over-the-top reality shows, so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Royals have fallen into the same gamut. By the end of the first episode, it was clear that the show was little more than a trashy “Royals Gone Wild” late night video. I give E! some credit, though. Considering that the show was renewed for a second season, the network obviously knows what it’s viewers like.

Admittedly, I found the first few episodes of the trashy, Housewives-style drama as addicting as the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that this fictitious House of Windsor freely indulges. The premise of the show is an alternate-reality English royal family whose front-page tabloid headlines are mild compared to the behind-the-scenes lies, manipulations, and debauchery. It’s a pleasant enough watch, but there’s little substance under the top layer. It feels less like a salacious tell-all, and more like a supermarket rag with aliens on the cover.

For those of you who haven’t seen the first season, there are spoilers ahead.

Headliner Elizabeth Hurley’s performance of Queen Helena is more Bedazzled devil than charming civil servant. Queen Helena is quickly revealed as the power-hungry trophy wife. Hurley’s character lacks a natural elegance and nobility, and rarely feels like a true head of state. The writer seems unsure if Queen Helena is an ice princess or a streetwalker. Hurley tends to lean towards sex kitten when she’s unsure of how to play a scene.

Queen Helena’s husband is the soft-spoken King Simon, played by Vincent Regan. King Simon is largely absent from the show, functioning as nothing more than the patriarchal figurehead of a family “of zoo animals,” as he calls them in a later episode. For his part, Regan does well with the role that he’s given. His declaration to end the monarchy creates the perfect inciting incident for the first season. Otherwise, King Simon is portrayed as the most moral and, therefore, the most uninteresting character of the bunch.

William Moseley, best known for his role in The Chronicles of Narnia, plays Liam, the “spare” or second son. The party prince is loosely based on Prince Harry. Liam’s rebellious ways, though, make Prince Harry look like he should be given sainthood.

Princess Eleanor, Liam’s twin, isn’t as interested in her position in line for the throne as much as she is in drugs, sex, and alcohol. Alexandra Park plays the troubled junkie, who spends most of the show in heavy black eye makeup that matches her Goth persona. Curiously, despite her parents’ best interests, she has a never-ending supply of cocaine and weed. Of course, no one ever mentions how Princess Eleanor manages to stay alive with that kind of habit, much less afford to buy the stuff.

Royalty may be filthy rich, but how exactly does a princess afford a kilo of cocaine for a weekend at between fifty and one hundred pounds sterling a gram according to the street rates quoted by the Telegraph? For the math challenged, Princess Eleanor’s cocaine habit would run her right around a million pounds a year. I suppose, in this fictional realm, the Royals make significantly more than their real-life counterparts. While Forbes estimates Queen Elizabeth’s wealth at several billion US dollars in untouchable assets, the Queen’s actual income is a paltry twelve point nine million, much of which goes to expenses. I doubt there’s a cool million left over for a couple of kilos of recreational coke unless we’re talking the caffeinated beverage kind.

Merritt Patterson plays the innocent Ophelia. The humble daughter of one of the King’s security men, she’s in love with the prince but not his world. But does the prince find her a perfect match, or will he follow his mother’s advice and rekindle his romance with Gemma (Sophie Colquhoun)?

Jack Maskall as Cyrus is the jealous brother that we love to hate. His sexuality is as questionable as his morals. His idea of convincing the House of Lords to keep the monarchy? Throw a dinner party with a helping of prostitutes and sides of Viagra, of course. Unfortunately, Cyrus’s character often comes off as foppish instead of menacing.

Prince Liam’s brother and the first heir to the thrown, Prince Robert, is announced dead in the first episode without making a screen appearance. His role as a pilot, however, is a nice nod to real life Prince William’s RAF career. Meanwhile, Joan Collin’s cameo as The Grand Duchess Alexandra of Oxford feels more like the wicked stepmother’s mother than a matriarch.

In addition to the Royal family, the house is full of friends, family, security and personal assistants, all of which have a colorful background.

The show’s plot lines feel a little like writers Michelle Ray and Mark Schwahn sat around and thought, “Okay, how can we take Cinderella, Hamlet, and Richard III, stick them in a blender and create a modern royal family worthy of continual tabloid coverage.” Maybe a larger problem for the show is that it isn’t sure of what it is. Is it a spoofy sendup or a realistic what-if? Without a clear genre, it comes off as The Royal Housewives of London reads Shakespeare for Dummies.

The first episode sets up some fairly stereotypical subplots for the first season with a few minor modern twists.

Prince Liam’s upstairs-downstairs romance with Ophelia, the head of security’s daughter and possibly the only truly sympathetic character in the show, is the Cinderella story of the show. Queen Helena plays the role of wicked stepmother. The conniving ex-girlfriend Gemma fills in for evil stepsisters.

The most modern of the subplots features Princess Eleanor’s blackmail over a sex video. Strangely, though, Jasper (Tom Austin), her scrupulous bodyguard would prefer to dominate her sexually than cash in on her wealth. While it’s hardly an Elizabethan plot, there’s an element of sadomasochism that’s Machiavellian none-the-less. Meanwhile, it becomes quite obvious why King Simon is considering abolishing the monarchy. It appears as if the entire royal family is addicted to sex, drugs, alcohol, and their ridiculous amount of wealth.

The show fancies itself as a modern day Hamlet, so much so that the episode titles are Shakespearean lines. The heavy-handed references to Hamlet throughout the first season are hardly subtle. The end of the first season leaves us with brother Cyrus ascending the throne ala a homosexual Claudius, minus marrying the Queen, of course.

Cyrus, using his trysts with a member of the House of Lords as an alibi, turns on Ophelia’s father Ted, who was the King’s trusted head of security before his death. Of course, in Hamlet, Ophelia’s father Polonious, was the King’s trusted advisor. No wonder they renamed the character Ted. Like his Shakespearean counterpart, Ted discourages Ophelia from seeing Liam for her own safety.

Prince Liam, our Hamlet, finds himself at the end of season one stripped of his title. He pushes away his girlfriend Ophelia – yes, that’s really her Royals character’s name, in case anyone has forgotten the name of Hamlet’s intended – has been pushed away, not to a nunnery, but to a New York ballet company. Although, frankly, with the number of straight men in ballet, she might as well “get thee to a nunnery.”

The Hamlet references continue to build momentum over the last three episodes, going as far as having both Eleanor and Liam speak to the ghost of their father. Like Hamlet, Liam vows to avenge his father’s death.

If the references to Hamlet weren’t enough, Eleanor and Liam are warned at the end of season one that, just like the two young Princes in Richard the III, their lives are in danger.

There is no crime in basing a show on one of the greatest literary works in history or in quoting it. In fact, I would have preferred The Royals with a bit more of Shakespeare’s subtly and entendre. Instead, the Queen talks about vaginas and whores with a crude frankness. The Princess casually slings around Internet acronyms otherwise unacceptable for broadcast TV. Her friends give and receive handies and hobbies and newly crowned King Cyrus offers to spell fellatio. Clearly, the future of the English language, if left up to this royal family, would become a four-letter word fest. E!’s status as a cable network most likely keeps them from being held to George Carlin’s famed seven dirty words. In The Royals, though, a heavy dose of shock factor in the vocabulary does not make for better writing. Mark Schwahn’s previous writing credits are all CW network shows, including the teen drama on One Tree Hill (IMDB), and it feels like he may have felt the need to validate his ability to write adult television.

The one bright spot of The Royals may be the lavish sets and locations shots. The interiors are opulently decorated with enough trimmings to feel authentic and have all the elements one would expect from the inside of a modern royal castle. The tunnels under the castle and secret passages are fun, even if they are a bit expected. The use of a real palace for the exteriors gives the show an element of believability. The show is filmed partly on location at Blenheim Palace, where, coincidentally or not, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation of Hamlet was also filmed.

The lavishness and beauty of the set are quite a contrast to the costumes. Instead of the traditionally luxurious but conservative wear expected from the royal family, these royal princesses leans towards sexy, low-cut numbers.

Even Queen Helena seems to believe that her décolletage is her primary asset as queen. Elisabeth Hurley told Vanity Fair, “For me—certainly not for character, but for the look—I thought to myself, ‘What would Princess Diana have worn, if she were still here (Duboff)?’” And, yet, I can’t imagine the real Princess Diana being caught on camera in some of the dresses that Hurley wears. There’s a fine line between glamorous and trashy. The Royals definitely skate and cross that line. I suspect the real Queen Elizabeth would not approve.

While the women’s dresses are over the top, the menswear is practically invisible. The men’s suits lack a certain Beau Brummel look customarily associated with even modern day English aristocrats. Cyrus’s eccentricities are hardly the style of a closeted homosexual, making it all too predictable when his bisexuality is revealed.

Liam and his friends, on the other hand, feel like a Ralph Lauren advertisement. The best single costume piece of the entire first season may be Liam’s boots from a country saddle maker.

As E!’s first attempt at a fully scripted show, The Royals is not a complete and total flop. However, no amount of association with the Bard can elevate The Royals beyond what it is, a shock-factor melodrama. For those who want a more accurate look at dramatized royal life, try Downton Abbey. But if Housewives of Atlanta is more your style, The Royals is worth a Saturday afternoon television binge. I give it a C-.

References

Duboff, J. (2015). Elizabeth Hurley’s Queen Character on The Royals Was Inspired by Princess Diana. Vanity Fair. Retrieved November 2, 2015.

(2015). Analysis: Are cocaine prices in the UK falling? The Telegraph. Retrieved November 2, 2015.

Kroll, L. (2011). Just How Rich Are Queen Elizabeth And Her Family? Forbes. Retrieved November 2, 2015.

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