Three episodes of the first season of “The Royals” were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
It’s not even faint praise to write that The Royals is exactly the kind of scripted drama that one would expect E!, a network notorious for noxious reality trash like The Girls Next Door and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, to make. Dully acted, preposterously written and populated by generically photogenic characters almost as loathsome as E!’s reality “stars,” the series is so train-wreck terrible that it’s difficult to even recommend it for hate-watching.
Peering inside the gates of Buckingham Palace to look at the strange, sordid and thoroughly silly lives of a British royal family (writer-creator Mark Schwahn has been careful with his articles, noting that The Royals isn’t about the actual royal family – because the kind of audience member E! hopes to attract apparently needs that to be made clear), The Royals posits that its titular characters are all promiscuous, pea-brained prats, as physically stunning as they are mentally vacant.
There’s hard-drinking, hard-partying Princess Eleanor (Alexandra Park), first seen dancing on a tabletop before falling and flashing every camera-ready paparazzi an upskirt shot – sans underwear. “Royal Beaver,” the headline reads. Her brother, the impossibly handsome and charming Prince Liam (William Moseley), hits bullseye after bullseye in a crowded pub before seducing the most beautiful girl in the room, Ophelia (Merritt Patterson). Turns out that Ophelia is the daughter of Buckingham’s head of security (both were too drunk, dumb or both to apparently realize they’ve been living under the same roof). And those three are meant to be the likable ones.
Elsewhere, Queen Helena (Elizabeth Hurley) towers over all, haughtily stalking the halls of Buckingham with a stony glare that’s two parts Revenge‘s Victoria Grayson and one part Game of Thrones‘ Cersei Lannister. She’s a camp creation with delusions of dramatic grandeur – Hurley’s over-the-top performance, the best in the series, at least acknowledges her character’s innate ridiculousness. More living, breathing cliches inhabit the background, from the stiffly honorable King Simon (Vincent Regan) to conniving Prince Cyrus (Jake Maskall) and his ugly-stepsister daughters (Lydia Rose Bewley and Hatty Preston). None of them are in the least bit enjoyable to watch though, which is a fatal blow for a series with as little going on narratively as this.
The wimpy, little motor that propels The Royals forward is the off-screen death of Prince Robert, Simon’s eldest son and the only viable choice for the throne, in a mysterious, military-related incident. Suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the future King of England, Liam faces more scrutiny than ever before, while the rest of his family channels their grief in a variety of unhealthy ways (Helena ices over, and Eleanor descends further into a spiral of drugs and alcohol). Little tidbits are dropped to suggest that The Royals will bring the circumstances of Robert’s death into the spotlight as the season progresses, though it’s hardly a compelling arc.
Slightly more enjoyable to watch is Liam’s stop-and-start courtship of Ophelia, though that arc is buried in stilted dialogue and even stiffer performances. Other plotlines include an internal blackmail plot against Eleanor by her mysterious bodyguard Jasper (Tom Austen), Cyrus’ machinations to gain political power, and the introduction of Liam’s manipulative ex, Gemma (Sophie Colquhoun), all plot points about as interesting as the show’s opening credits.
By focusing on a British royal family, The Royals ensured a certain amount of scrutiny from the U.K. press. Perhaps individuals at the actual Buckingham Palace will even tune in out of curiosity. Needless to say, though, the series is far from a biting satire of royal life, or a condemnation of the British monarchy as a whole. To say such things would be to lend The Royals the iota of intelligence it so sorely lacks. The only mockery the show makes is of its own network, which is now possibly even closer to the bottom rung of quality television than it was before this scripted endeavor.
With its awkward mix of drama and gaudy theatricality, the show is reminiscent of a short-lived ITV2 series called Trinity. Both made use of handsome, ineffectual actors and attempted to mine contrived scripts for maximum drama, but to little success. Unfortunately, there’s one major difference between The Royals and Trinity – E! has already seen fit to renew this mess of a series for another season. Let’s just hope the critical drubbing it’s sure to receive is more than enough to ensure that it loses its head as soon as (or before – we can dream, right?) that two-year reign is over.
Despite the abundance of pretty young things on screen, The Royals is utter trash, too vacuous to beguile and derivative to excite. It's also quite possibly the worst new series on television since, well, E!'s last new series.