PALM ROYALE is a Buzzy Confection of Queen Bees That’s Not Quite Hilarious

Posted on March 20, 2024


Apple TV+’s new ’60s farce Palm Royale dropped its first three episodes, although we’re not sure that description really covers it. Adapted from the novel Mr. and Mrs. American Pie and starring Kristen Wiig as Maxine Dellacourt Simmons, who’s not so much a social climber as a social grasper, the series also features a murderer’s row of comedic actresses, including Julia Duffy, Allison Janney, Laura Dern, Leslie Bibb, Mindy Cohn and the legend herself, Carol Burnett. Set among the Palm Beach social set of 1969, the series is a candy-colored confection of eye-popping fashion, production design and wigs, but after watching three hours of it, we can’t quite convey what kind of story it’s supposed to be. It’s clearly meant to be a farce about a southern pageant queen with dreams of becoming a queen bee of high society, but despite all of the energy and talent on display, it rarely delivers moments that rise above “mildly amusing,” at least in these first episodes.

If we sound like we’re trying too hard to finesse an opinion here, it’s because we probably are. We’re not in total agreement on the series, although we both like it (one of us way more than the other). Given the aesthetic and the roster on display, which seems tailor-made to make gay men squeal in delight, we’re reluctant to be overly critical. It’s cutesy fun that so far doesn’t have a lot of bite to it, although there are some hints by the third episode that things are about to get more interesting.


The problem is that the series lingers a bit too long on certain aspects without truly paying them off, which tends to lend the pacing a bit of a stop-and-start feel in the early episodes. For instance, we’re not sure there was a good enough reason to obscure who Maxine’s husband was for the entire first hour. The reveal landed with a bit of a thud and even with characters like Evelyn pointing out “You should have led with that” it doesn’t quite explain why she didn’t. She’s presented as the ultimate arriviste, but she married into the most prominent family name in Palm Beach and for some reason, tells no one this during her initial attempts to infiltrate high society.

There are similar herky-jerky aspects to the writing that feel like the sort of growing pains that occur when adapting a story from book to series. Chapters aren’t episodes, after all. What this means for the series is that Maxine will find herself with a dilemma at the top of the hour that she has seemingly solved (usually through the writing of bad checks) by the end of the episode, only for a new problem to arise at the beginning of the next one. That’s fine, but it leaves character interactions, such as the ones between Maxine and Leslie Bibb’s Dinah feeling somewhat random, with no stakes to them. One episode, Maxine’s arranging an abortion for Dinah (and it’s to the show’s enormous credit that no one bats an eye at this development or moralizes about it for so much as a second), the next, Dinah’s openly trying to destroy her. Sure, you can chalk this up to the capriciousness and backstabbing natures of these ladies, but does it really make sense for Dinah to make an enemy out of the one person who knows her worst secret?


Of course it’s relatively early in the season and like those bad checks she keeps writing, all of this is likely to be hashed out more as the story progresses, but some of these creative decisions have us wondering about the show’s direction. Similarly, we have to seriously question the wisdom of casting one of the greatest comic actresses of all time only to have her in a coma for the first two hours of the season. It’s to Carol Burnett’s credit that she can somehow make lying down with your eyes closed seem funny. At the top of the third episode, we finally get to see her moving and talking in a flashback that only serves to underline how wrongheaded it was to keep her sidelined for the first two hours. Such is the extent of her comic powers that she makes the simple act of taking a pill seem hilarious.

Aside from the production design and the stunning costumes by Alix Friedberg, the main reason to catch Palm Royale is its cast, and on that front, no one disappoints. As noted, Burnett can make a two-minute wordless scene sing, but no one plays shrewd and calculating as well as Allison Janney and it’s a pleasure to see her occupy the endless parade of caftans worn by Palm Beach social maven and would-be queen be Evelyn Rollins. Leslie Bibb provides most of the major comedic moments in the first two episodes. She’s hilarious in her interactions with Wiig, who lends Maxine a sweetness that could come off cloying or even dishonest. She manages to avoid that by playing the somewhat broadly sketched Maxine as straightforward and earnestly as possible. Ricky Martin holds his own against the SNL alum, giving his character Robert a sense of menace but also absurdity. At first we thought Laura Dern was a bit miscast as a consciousness-raising feminist, but her connections to the Palm Royale and the hints of her backstory keep her somewhat intriguing. There are hints of foul play, like Maxine’s voiceover at the start of the series that makes it sound like a crime has occurred, as well as the rather evasive way the circumstances of Norma’s coma are explained, although we suspect the needle on the bedroom floor is a red herring. There also appears to be some confusing elements to how the Dellacourt and Rollins families are intertwined, which makes us suspect that the man who left Laura Dern at the altar is the man who wound up marrying a pageant queen from Tennessee. Still, we’ll have to wait to find out.


We’ve only watched the first three screeners because we want to recap this one. How could we not? A bunch of comedy divas wearing clothes straight out of I Dream of Jeannie and plotting each other’s ruin? Rocky beginning or not, we’re all in on this one.


[Picture credit: Apple TV +]

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