Starring Elizabeth Hurley, William Moseley, Alexandra Park, Merritt Patterson, and Tom Austen
My rating: ★ 1/2 stars
Fun, campy soap hindered by shockingly unaware treatment of rape.
When I decided to watch The Royals, I expected the show to be fun and campy in an ‘80s prime time soap opera kind of way. Given that the series was from E!, I also anticipated that it would be a little trashy. The first two episodes completely fulfilled those expectations. In fact, the plot of the first episode of this show, “Stand and Unfold Yourself,” and that of the first episode of Dallas, “Digger’s Daughter,” are very similar. In “Digger’s Daughter,” the nice guy younger son of a wealthy family brings his new wife, the lower class daughter of a former employee of the family, to meet the rest of the brood. In “Stand and Unfold Yourself,” the nice guy younger son of a wealthy family brings his new girlfriend, the commoner daughter of a current employee of the family, to dinner with the rest of the brood.
In this case, however, the family is not the Ewings, but the British royal family, and the younger son is now the only son, the firstborn son having just died as the episode begins. The show doesn’t dwell too long on this death. That kind of serious drama doesn’t fit the show’s agenda, which calls for a focus on sniping, backbiting, manipulation, sex scandals, and outrageous behavior. King Simon (Vincent Regan) is most affected by the death of his heir apparent, so much so that he ponders abolishing the monarchy in order to allow his remaining children, Prince Liam (William Moseley) and Princess Eleanor (Alexandra Park), to have a semblance of a normal life. This idea doesn’t sit well with Queen Helena (Elizabeth Hurley), who relishes her position and celebrity status.
Prince Liam worries that his father lacks faith in his ability as a future monarch, but he doesn’t let that worry or his sudden position as the new heir apparent get in the way of romancing his new girlfriend, Ophelia (Merritt Patterson), the daughter of the king’s head of security, Ted (Oliver Milburn). Liam comes off as earnest and sweet, but his behavior is dictated by the requirements of the plot and does not reflect genuine human behavior. In reality, a good guy like Liam would be profoundly affected by the death of his brother and the sudden shift of major responsibility to him. For Liam, these seem like minor concerns. Later episodes will indicate that Liam is known for wild and irresponsible behavior, but nothing in these first two episodes suggest that he is anything but a good guy and a dutiful son.
Ophelia appears to be the audience surrogate, the middle class young woman suddenly thrust into the whirlwind surrounding this family. To make the target viewers better able to relate to her, Mark Schwahn, the show’s creator and writer, gave Ophelia the background of having been raised in America, where her now deceased mother was from. The series seems designed to appeal to young American women interested in romance and gossip. And the character of Ophelia provides vicarious enjoyment, as she is pursued by the handsome heir to the throne and as she displays her mettle in standing up to his family and the various hangers-on around him.
While Ophelia represents the nice, ordinary girl, Princess Eleanor acts as her foil, a rebellious, often reckless and self-destructive wild child who parties every night and makes imprudent statements on social media. The series opens with her accidently flashing her naughty bits during drunken revels at a nightclub. The pictures of this unfortunate occurrence would seem to be the family’s biggest problem until they receive news of death of the eldest son in some kind of military maneuver.
Eleanor’s storyline in these two episodes is the most troubling. When her original bodyguard is summarily fired for allowing the flashing incident to be photographed, Eleanor gets a new bodyguard, Jasper (Tom Austen), who at first seems nervous, unsure, and unassuming. After a night out at another club, Eleanor wakes up to discover herself in bed with Jasper and another woman, apparently post-coital. After the other woman leaves, Eleanor announces that she plans to have Jasper fired and that he was completely unmemorable as a lover. Jasper, then, reveals that she can’t remember because he drugged her and then filmed the ensuing threesome. He threatens to release the video unless she does whatever he says, which includes continuing to have sex with him. Schwahn doesn’t seem to recognize the severity of the situation—that Jasper has raped Eleanor by drugging her in order to get her into a sexual encounter and, then, compounds this crime by coercing her into further sexual arrangements.
The show offers no notion that drugged sex and coerced sex constitute not just nasty behavior, but rape. While Eleanor clearly doesn’t want to be in a sexual relationship with Jasper, she doesn’t react as if she has been violated. She’s merely irritated about his control over her and the fact that she has to keep having sex with him. She calls it “blackmail sex,” not rape. The failure to treat this situation with the appropriate gravity suggests that the Schwahn isn’t even aware that these encounters are rape, perhaps because they lack the use of physical force or a weapon or perhaps because Eleanor is the type of character who would engage in reckless sexual behavior with her bodyguard and another woman even when not drugged. That she is not sexually discriminating, however, doesn’t diminish the fact that her choice was taken away from her. This lack of awareness is particularly worrisome given the show’s target audience of young women around Eleanor’s age, who might be just learning about the complexity of the subject or even confronting similar situations.
The incident at the end the second episode where Jasper prevents Eleanor from being taken advantage of by a repellent suitor has intriguing dramatic possibilities. Jasper helps Eleanor here, but it seems that he’s not doing it for her benefit but to maintain his own sexual control over her. The show, unfortunately, doesn’t have the interest in or the capability of delving deeply into the contradictions.
Schwahn, who also directs the episode, manages to exacerbate this horribly problematic storyline by treating Tom Austen like beefcake. Jasper should be presented as repellent. But Schwahn employs little difference in how he displays Austen versus how he displays William Moseley as Liam. Both actors are used as eye candy to appeal to young female viewers with no sense that the audience should react differently to them.
On the other hand, Schwahn presents Prince Cyrus (Jake Maskall), the king’s brother, as repugnant. In a sloppy editing mistake, an important scene seems to have been left out of the first episode. In that scene, Cyrus coerces a palace maid to perform a sexual act. A piece of that scene shows up before the second episode during the “Previously on” segment that airs before the episode to show what occurred in the previous episode. Later in the second episode, the maid is shown having slipped a gun into the palace, suggesting she plans to get revenge on Cyrus. For his part, Cyrus, having forgotten about the maid, has seduced an important government official and proposes to blackmail him to get his support for the monarchy. Cyrus, thus, reflects the stereotype of the devious bisexual that shows up all too often in modern narratives.
At the forefront of all these shenanigans is Queen Helena. Hurley seems to be having a lot of fun strutting around in bitchy glee, a la Joan Collins (who is scheduled to appear in a future episode). However, while she captures the level of camp glamour needed for a show like this, she fails to convey a level of emotion appropriate to playing a mother who just lost her child. This failure could be the fault of the Schwahn, who avoids examining deep emotions. Vincent Regan, who plays her husband, the king, falls into the opposite trap of playing the material too seriously. His quiet introspection doesn’t fit with the camp sensibility of the show.
A series like this, which intends to be no more than mindless fun, deserves to be appreciated on those terms. But the show’s cavalier and shockingly oblivious treatment of rape impedes the fun. If a show doesn’t want to be serious, it should avoid subjects that need to be treated with care and gravity. The first two episodes of this series demonstrate a complete lack of care. The performances are uneven, the writing muddled, and the use of music overwhelming. A key scene being left out reflects a level of carelessness that I have rarely seen. Just because a show is not serious doesn’t mean it must be sloppy and slapdash.