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Palm Royale is Pretty and Shallow, Which At Least Matches its Characters

Apple TV+’s “Palm Royale” has unfortunate timing. It’s an earnest entry in the class-striving genre, here telling the tale of Kristen Wiig’s Maxine Simmons D'ellacourt as she tries to break into high society in Palm Beach in the 1960s. But the conventions of these tales recently took a high-profile battering with the breakout popularity of Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn.” Love it or hate it, that squirm-inducing film did something new with the conniving rags-to-riches formula. “Palm Royale” does not. Adding insult to injury, it is overly long, clocking in at nearly ten hours in what could surely be done in half the time. Even “Saltburn’s” biggest fans were not clamoring for it to go on five times its run length.

Now, that’s not to say that “Palm Royale” is completely without charm. Its cast certainly goes a long way toward making it watchable. Wiig is fantastic—funny, likeable, and dynamic. As Maxine, she clearly proves her leading-lady chops with a role showcasing her Hollywood glamour (the '60s styling works for her) while also portraying a depth of emotion those primarily familiar with “Bridesmaids” and her SNL days may not know she has. Likewise, Allison Janney knocks it out of the park.Her Evelyn Rollins, as the type of striver who pulls up the ladder after her, should not be sympathetic. Her voice screeches, her actions are cruel, and her charm has faded with her age. And yet, under Janney’s careful stewardship, Evelyn is hard not to care about even though she gives no real reason why anyone should.

That said, the rest of the ensemble doesn’t sparkle quite as much. Ricky Martin does a serviceable job as Robert, the bartender at the women’s social club. He wears his costumes well and inhabits Robert’s darker moments with ease, but he flubs the comedy. Likewise, the usually reliable Laura Dern can’t make a person out of her bohemian character, who remains little more than a collection of slogans.

Still, the costumes and sets are a delight. As women of a certain age, the matrons of “Palm Royale” sport a copious amount of hairspray and beehives, harkening back to an area where a woman’s hair was her de facto helmet. “Palm Royale” also has a lot of fun with its clothes—the silhouettes, patterns, and colors all telegraphing wealth and the aesthetics of its period. It makes sense that there are several set pieces in the dress shop, where our wealthy women converge to gossip, make power moves, and fight over their next fits. The sets and props are fun too with antique guns and statutes, fanciful homes, and at least one of-the-era bookstore. It’s all a lovely time warp, sending us back to 1969 with its limitations and styling, reflecting Maxine’s obstacles and ambitions.

But style isn’t substance, and “Palm Royale” is lacking in the latter if not the former. For one, not much even happens for the first two-thirds of the season. Yes, Maxine gets a foothold in the rarefied society of Palm Beach but that’s never really in doubt. Instead, the first bit of the season seems to mostly exist to give its heroines opportunities to wear those amazing costumes and not much else. By the time some real action takes place, it’s hard to imagine too many people will still be watching. And then, after wasting so much time, it has the audacity to end on a cliffhanger when a tidier conclusion would have been a much wiser bet.

Due to its length and lack of substance, the whole enterprise is hard to care about. Does Maxine deserve to have the same amount of money as the rest of them? Sure! But that’s a very low bar. In “Palm Royale,” no one works, the wealth all seems to be inherited if not ill-begotten. And these are not particularly smart or talented people. They’re petty, easily manipulated lay-abouts. They don’t deserve Maxine’s idolization, a fact she doesn’t ever seem to realize.

Instead, we’re supposed to root for her ascent, despite her happiness probably lying elsewhere. Like “Saltburn,” “Palm Royale” seems unsure if it's trying to lampoon or celebrate the upper classes it’s depicting. But in Apple TV+’s series, “greed is good” is a given, a default for all humankind. And that’s a depressing worldview that no amount of talented actresses in fabulous clothes and makeup can cover up. In the end, “Palm Royale” is shallower than its protagonist and that’s saying something.

Whole season screened for review. It premieres on March 20th.

Cristina Escobar

Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co, a digital publication uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media.

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