‘Palm Royale’ Review: Kristen Wiig Leads Apple TV+’s Stylish and Starry but Substance-Challenged Satire

Apple TV+’s Palm Royale may be set in the late 1960s, but its greatest pleasures seem tailor-made for the age of the internet. Every shot of a socialite smirking over the rim of a cocktail glass plays like the perfect reaction GIF. The bitchy bon mots might as well be engineered for portioning into TikTok-sized soundbites, the outrageous plot twists for drawing gasps in the group chat. And the aesthetic — oh, the aesthetic! In a repudiation of the “quiet luxury” greige, this vision of America’s elite is awash in shimmering jewel tones and Lilly Pulitzer brights. You could build entire mood boards around the hippie-chic bookstore or the baroque mansion. I myself lost a good 20 minutes Googling between episodes for cat-eye sunglasses just like the ones featured on Maxine (Kristen Wiig).

But the eye-popping style is as good as the show gets; the fun ends where the surface does. While there’s plenty going on in Palm Royale, including back-stabbings, torrid affairs and attempted murders, there’s precious little true substance lurking beneath its candy shell. At ten hour-long episodes, the comedy takes an awfully long way to get nowhere very interesting at all.

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Under the right golden light, though, even flaws can look like gleams of potential at first glance — and so it is with Palm Royale. If the tone of the premiere (directed by The Help helmer Tate Taylor) is all over the place, one might hope it stems from an excess of ambition; if the characters are hard to read, perhaps the fun will be in guessing what they’re up to. Protagonist Maxine is, after all, an impostor: She’s first spotted sneaking into a country club she cannot possibly afford, in clothes and jewelry she’s “borrowed” from comatose grand dame Norma (Carol Burnett). But her real break into high society comes when she befriends Dinah (Leslie Bibb), who actually is the socialite that Maxine has only been pretending to be. From there, the Tennessee beauty queen gradually charms and manipulates her way into Palm Beach’s ruling class, overseen by the imperious Evelyn (Allison Janney).

As is surely obvious from the above paragraph, a huge part of Palm Royale‘s draw is its star-studded cast. And the actors certainly come to play: Wiig brings an off-kilter intensity to Maxine’s Barbie-perfect looks and pageant-ready smiles, so that no matter how hard Maxine works to blend in she cannot help but stick out. Janney could play “imposing matriarch” in her sleep, but that makes it no less entertaining to watch her swan around in caftans while cutting Laura Dern’s feminist Linda down to size. Bibb is such a blast playing catty and bratty that I wouldn’t be surprised if her next lead role were cast off the strength of this one. And Ricky Martin, as snarky but secretly sweet bartender Robert, emerges as the closest thing this series has to a beating heart.

If the performances are consistently entertaining, though, the writing is rarely up to their level. As created by Abe Sylvia (adapting Juliet McDaniel’s Mr. & Mrs. American Pie), the story is vaguely framed as a takedown of the American dream — with Maxine as the striver climbing up the ladder through sheer moxie, and the Palm Royale members as the undeserving elite unable to deal with a changing world. But seeing that big picture requires zooming way out. Up close what’s clear is only that the characters are a mess and their relationships a muddle. It’s one thing for Maxine’s frenemies to be unable to tell whether she’s “a country bumpkin or the most ruthless woman in Palm Beach”; the issue is that Palm Royale doesn’t seem to know either. The narrative simply throws everything it can think of at the wall, and tries seeing what sticks.

Sometimes it’s a campy satire about Evelyn and Dinah exchanging passive-aggressive compliments. Sometimes it’s an earnest drama about Maxine trying to find her place in the world, or Robert growing more confident in his sexuality. There are thriller elements, like gunshots and blackmail and secret identities, and absurdist ones, like a whale-centric subplot that might’ve been more at home in Wiig’s Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Occasionally it gestures in the direction of social commentary, as TV reports of antiwar protests blare in the background and ladies at lunch mourn the “death of gentility.” Mostly it operates on the level of a soap opera about who’s screwing whom, who’s inheriting what, whether Maxine will be able to pull together an end-of-season bash grand enough to cement her status in Palm Beach — which would be more engrossing if the characters were more than paper dolls bending to the whims of writers trying to fill an episode count.

In a sense, it’s appropriate that the one thing Palm Royale really nails is its look. Each set appears to have been decorated at great expense, in keeping with the characters’ luxe tastes. Each gorgeous costume has been carefully chosen to signal each character’s status or aspirations at a given time, such that it’s often easier to track Maxine’s fortunes through the appropriateness of her dresses than through the herky-jerky plotting. Our heroine would be the first to agree that presentation matters, whether one is trying to win a pageant crown, climb the social hierarchy or tell a story.

Eventually, however, even she loses the patience to put on a good face. In what should have been her greatest moment of triumph, she stands before a crowd in her most gorgeous dress yet to sing “Is That All There Is?” I wished I could ask the show the same.

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