It’s a royal shame that TV has been so good lately.
Brilliance is fine, but it’s become boring—what with the so-called golden age of television gilding an unmanageable number of series into the echelon of excellence. It’s turned us all into bored monarchs, listlessly searching for jesters and minstrels to dance and perform for us, demanding new ways to be entertained.
How shrewd—and admirably on-brand—of E!, then, to mark the occasion of its first original scripted series by revisiting a tradition as hallowed as the monarchy itself: trash TV. The Royals, which debuted Sunday night, isn’t of the guilty pleasure type, either. With regal pride, it sits its unabashed trashiness on a throne, there for all of us to bow down to.
And you’ll worship it, too. You’ll worship all of the knowing class it adds to the depravity, campiness, and high drama soap opera on display. You’ll worship its opulence of design and excess of debauchery, all of which is fit for a queen. Or at least a drunken princess.
Whether it’s the moral ambiguity of their antiheroes or the bleak mirror they put on society, today’s most celebrated dramas are sourced from the darkest recesses of our minds and instincts. The Royals, however, seems to spring from Prince Harry’s secret Snapchats. Think Gossip Girl meets Real Housewives, but with Lisa Vanderpump’s Tiffany tiaras replaced with actual crowns.
Sure, this description doesn’t summon to mind the highest quality of television. And The Royals most certainly is not, either.
Instead, it’s a tabloid editor’s escapist fantasy played out on screen; a series that doesn’t make innuendo out of what goes on behind palace walls but instead busts those walls right open—revealing Royals Behaving Badly in all of their inebriated, backstabbing splendor. And once you commit yourself to the trashy abandon of The Royals, the one critique of the show might be that the abandon isn’t reckless or campy enough.
But having the cheeky foresight to fictionalize the royal family as some modern British incarnation of Dynasty, and then casting Elizabeth Hurley as the queen and Joan Collins as the queen’s mum to boot? Give credit where it’s due: The Royals nails its audience. (That audience would be “gay.” And also Keeping Up With the Kardashians fans. Which is to say “gay.”)
The series, at first blush, seems to exist simply as indulgence porn—a montage of princes screwing hot girls, princesses doing coke, and their queen mother too busy slinking about in sexy minidresses to be properly bothered by it all. But there’s a more nuanced perspective to The Royals, and one that keeps the series engaging when the clothes come back on and the post-coital plot springs into action.
What must it be like to be high on power, influence, and all the riches of Britain, but at the same time be shackled by the expectation and claustrophobic existence of the crown? The life of a royal is the ultimate tease. YOLO like a boss. Like a king, even. But don’t expect any privacy while doing it.
Hot Prince Liam (Chronicles of Narnia’s William Moseley) gets drunk at a pub and starts hooking up with a girl in the bathroom hallway. “Can we go somewhere without them?” she asks. His bodyguard is two feet away. Hot Princess Eleanor (Alexandra Park) spends the night clubbing in Paris, doing lines of coke, and dancing on the table. Paparazzi snag an upskirt photo of the table-dancing. The tabloid headline the next day: “Royal Beaver.”
There’s a wry sense of humor that befits the whole British vibe of the series: sly and dry, but still hip enough for the Kendall Jenners out there to get. “My daughter, the princess, behaving like a common whore,” Hurley’s Queen Helena chastises in a fabulous purred deadpan. Elizabeth Hurley is fantastic in this role. Long live the queen.
But the smartest thing The Royals does is add solemn weight to the ludicrous, lascivious proceedings. Liam and Eleanor have rough morning-afters. The girl Liam was sleeping with is actually the head of security’s daughter, and Eleanor arrives, in pathetic glamour, back at the palace passed out in the back of a helicopter with mascara streaked down her face. It’s soon revealed that while they were out partying, their elder brother, the heir to the throne, died in combat.
Swiftly, these party monsters become humans; the royals become like one of us. A good soap opera should trade in emotional histrionics as often as it trades in carnal fantasy, and this twist hits you like a gut-punch. The camera focuses in on Liam, as the voiceover describes him: “The bewildered boy who just lost his brother, and, in the same moment, just became the future king of England.”
The family’s loss is quickly overshadowed by the circus and spectacle of their grief. Queen Helena must turn her back so as not to cry in front of a footman. A crowd gathers to watch Liam give an official statement. “My brother dies and they script my feelings.”
But, in the tried-and-true soap tradition, every single tear shed by the viewer is dried up by a hearty guffaw. Helena is not pleased with the way Eleanor and Liam are publicly grieving. “You are a little bitch,” she tells Eleanor. She slaps her son. But perhaps it’s the king (Vincent Regan) who acts in the most outrageous way: He tells his family that, following the death of his son and heir, he’s going to move that parliament abolish the monarchy.
Suddenly, the series becomes Dallas meets Game of Thrones, with Liam and Eleanor proving they are worthy of the throne and Helena conspiring to keep power at all costs.
The tragicomic trashiness of The Royals is best encapsulated by Helena debriefing her husband after a footman walked in on her changing: “Let me recap my week for you. My daughter’s vagina was on the cover of no less than four tabloids. My first-born child was killed. My husband announced that he wants to abolish the only life I’ve ever known. And his footman nearly saw my snatch.”
As that monologue proves, this series thrives on its sound bites, whether it’s Helena barking, “You are the king of England, goddammit. Act like it!” to her husband or Eleanor asserting, “I’m just a bitch with money and power. But I do make it look good.”
The Royals trades in the idea that these people are more famous than rock stars (something that is presented quite literally when the future king of England crowd surfs on top of his public, while his sister chain-smokes and drinks Champagne out of the bottle). Of course it’s airing on the network that reports on such celebrities exclusively.
But the series is also a clever commentary on power, and status, and how all of that is changing. In the not-too-distant future, no one in America will be a viable presidential candidate. All of our indiscretions and youthful dalliances will be documented and publicized through social media, camera phones, and what have you, to the point that no one will be considered moral enough to be electable.
These people, the royals, have the luxury of birthright to power. But that hasn’t stopped them from being raked over the coals for their mistakes. Prince Harry and his butt will certainly empathize with that. The Royals plays with the idea that the gilded cage of the palace is no longer secure from outside scrutiny—e.g. when Eleanor is blackmailed with an iPhone video.
But most of all, it’s fun.
At one point Prince Liam is walking through a hall of portraits with his father, the king, and is apologizing for his mistakes. The king forgives him, saying, “There are monarchs on these walls who have done much worse.” Here’s hoping The Royals treats that as a challenge.