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tv Palm Royale Is a Weak Critique of the “Bubble” of the Rich

Showing that rich women in 1969 are “living in a bubble” is like demonstrating that, as ever, water is wet. But even if Palm Royale was meant to deliver messages of great satirical significance, it’s too weak to carry them.

Kristen Wiig as Maxine Simmons in Palm Royale. ,(Apple TV+)

I've been trying to stick with Palm Royale. There’s a lot of talent involved, and the ten-episode Apple TV+ series always seems like it’s just about to take off and become something more than a brightly colored, blandly satirical take on the absurd ultrarich of Palm Beach, Florida, and the people who long to crash the gates of their tacky fiefdoms.

Her only assets in this stupid quest are her unquenchably chirpy, delusional optimism, her high-haired blonde-bouffant and overall good looks, and the assets of her husband’s wealthy great aunt, Norma Dellacorte (Carol Burnett, still game at ninety), who’s in a long-term coma. Her condition allows Maxine to borrow her somewhat outdated designer clothes and pawn her jewelry and knickknacks for ready rolls of cash.

But standing in Maxine’s way are the guardians of the gates of wealth, the rich group of women who run the biggest charities and wear the fanciest duds and lunch, dine, swim, and play tennis at the Palm Royale. They’re led by formidable dragon lady Evelyn Rollins (Allison Janney), though her hold on the top spot is slipping, giving opportunities to younger, possibly deadlier up-and-coming socialites.

Allison Janney in Palm Royale. (Apple TV+)

Orbiting the women is Ricky Martin’s character of Robert, hot-bodied waiter at the Palm Royale who also lives as a caretaker at the Dellacorte mansion, where he’s soon up against Maxine claiming squatters’ rights there. That’s on the strength of the shaky inheritance claims of her indulgent husband, Douglas (Josh Lucas), an airline pilot who was contentedly estranged from his family till Maxine began her quest to become one of the rich Dellacortes.

Mindy Cohn plays Ann Holiday, reporter for the Shiny Sheet, a gossip rag reporting on the doings of the wealthy. She gets invested in Maxine’s unlikely long-shot attempts to join the rarified Palm Royale set. So does Evelyn’s daughter Linda (Laura Dern), who’s rejected her mother’s lifestyle to live as a hippie feminist running consciousness-raising teach-ins at a leftist bookstore, which Maxine is always crashing in order to ask for favors.

But oddly enough, given this promisingly funny setup, it’s rarely more than pallidly amusing. Even the performances, full of pratfalls and ludicrous behaviors, seem oddly subdued. Janney delivers gimlet-eyed menace, but she’s been so much more inspired and memorable in other roles. Never has Dern given a weaker performance, which is downright alarming to witness. And Burnett’s big laugh line so far, used in the previews for the show, involves her character calling for Robert to ask for another drink and announcing, “And we will be playing doctor.”

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Created by Abe Sylvia (Eyes of Tammy Faye), the series seems to ask us to truly empathize with the ridiculous lengths Maxine is going to in reaching her goal to become a Palm Royale player. This is tough to sustain over ten strangely slow-paced episodes, including regular dramatic interludes. There’s always another crisis requiring Maxine to come up with an insane amount of money immediately, or to demonstrate that she lives like a rich person though she’s just been evicted from her seedy residential hotel room for nonpayment of rent, or to persuade another reluctant rich woman to back her membership in the club before they throw her out. She always pulls it off in the nick of time. But these plot developments have a sameness to them that gets steadily duller over several episodes.

At least our eyes are dazzled by the costume designs of Alix Friedberg, a parade of late-1960s fashions in outrageous pinks, oranges, greens, and yellows. But even that palls in time, and we have to start wondering what experience this series is trying to give us if not screwball hilarity with an edge of social commentary.

It’s loosely based on the 2018 novel Mr and Mrs American Pie by Juliet McDaniel, which is much more the raucous comedy one might expect, judging by the author’s description:

Maxine is a picture perfect, pill-popping, haughty society lady in 1969 Palm Springs until the Thanksgiving her husband walks out on her. Fueled by her rage and buckets of DGAF, Maxine decides to reclaim what marriage stole from her. She joins forces with her favorite bartender, “confirmed bachelor” Robert, and together they craft a fake family to help Maxie enter the ultimate beauty queen contest for housewives — Mrs American Pie. But is she here to win or just out to destroy?

In writing her book, McDaniel was also concerned with representing how the turbulent era of the 1960s allowed marginalized people to come to the fore, such as Robert in the early years of the gay rights movement. This earnest goal seems to be informing the series to a significant extent, according to lead actor and executive producer Wiig:

I don’t think you can tell a story, especially in 1969, about a bunch of wealthy people at a country club without acknowledging all of the things that were going on with women’s rights and the Vietnam War. I think story-wise, too, to have the feminists at the bookstore, just completely the other side of the coin to the women that are at the Palm Royale, but they do exist in the same world, and some of them do know each other — to have both of those things happening at the same time was such a reminder that the women in the club are just living in a bubble. . . . I think we felt it was really important to shine the light on how ridiculous they look, because they’re not acknowledging it, and to just really say what’s going on in the world that’s actually important.

Extraordinary how this interview stuff writes itself by now. The much-mocked online phrase “This is honestly so important right now” never comes close to mocking the pious attitude behind it out of existence. Practically every movie and TV series is publicized by establishing its bona fides in terms of airing the “important” issues of our day, and if they aren’t demonstrably “shining a light” on something culturally praiseworthy or culturally deplorable, and either way requiring our solemn consideration, critics are up and demanding why they exist at all.

Still from Palm Royale. (Apple TV+)

Showing that rich women in 1969 are “living in a bubble” is like demonstrating that, as ever, water is wet. But even if Palm Royale was meant to deliver messages of great satirical significance, it’s too weak to carry them.

Nobody seeing Palm Royale in childhood — or adulthood — is likely to remember it. Which is too bad because Carol Burnett deserves better.


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Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin, host of the Filmsuck podcast, and author of Filmsuck, USA.

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