The Royals’ Pains: Succession, Sex and Excess

E! threw its hat in the scripted soap ring with last night’s premiere of The Royals, with fair to middling (not to be confused with ‘Middleton’) results. The Royals centers on England’s scandal-riddled sitting royal family, led by Elizabeth Hurley’s Queen Helena and Vincent Regan’s King Simon. William Moseley plays Prince Liam, a sweet young prince with a healthy ego and an equally healthy libido, while his twin Alexandra Park’s Eleanor is a party girl princess. Of course bodyguards shadow every single one of their antics — which viewers are treated to right out of the gate. Eleanor in particular puts on quite a show. Booze! A little coke and dancing on the bar! Crotch shots! And Princess Eleanor’s lack of panties hitting the tabloids is far from the family’s biggest problem when eldest child and heir to the throne Robert dies under mysterious circumstances. “Hey. This sucks, huh?” Eleanor sighs to her surviving brother in a ginormous understatement.

Liam (really, The Royals? Was ‘Will’ too obvious?) and Ophelia, the American daughter of the king’s head of security, must put their gin-and-tonic laced hookup aside as the weight of succession descends…and those of us watching must pretend Ophelia doesn’t look quite a bit like Duchess Kate. There is even a Very Kate Hat during Robert’s funeral. Not that this is the only blatant shout-out to the Windsors. Jake Maskell plays a smarmy Prince Cyrus, who makes cracks to Eleanor about syphilis and has a hated ex-wife and two brash and unpolished daughters that some British viewers might call “chavs.” (I’m only guessing, as I watch a lot of BBC America and I’ve read Alexis Hall’s Glitterland.) I hope Sarah Ferguson and Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice are somewhere sharpening some knives.

Where The Royals splits off from real-life references is a grieving King Simon’s desire to “abolish the monarchy.” Whatever shall his scheming relatives do? They want to hold onto their power and their status — and, in one of the show’s more painful “comedic” exchanges, keep from turning into Justin Bieber. “It’s out of character for you to speak so casually about the family,” Helena tells a servant in her husband’s pajamas while Simon’s off wandering his kingdom in commoner’s clothes. “Frankly, it’s weak, and less than who you are.” Sure, but it’s a nice jumping off point for all kinds of soapy skullduggery, which The Royals could definitely use more of, despite all the sex, drugs and taking advantage of maids. (Did I mention Prince Cyrus is a smarm? Because yes. He’s gross.)

On the bright side, this is a very pretty cast — you know you’re ‘of an age’ when you find head of security Ted (Oliver Milburn) more attractive than Prince Liam — and there’s enough of a budding star-crossed love between Liam and Ophelia to hook romance fans. Plus, Elizabeth Hurley tries her best to lend the show some Carrington and Colby level drama. But uneasy is the head that wears the crown…and the head that sits through a plodding hour-and-fifteen-minute pilot. Though some wonderfully human moments between Ted and Ophelia and Ophelia and Eleanor stand out, most of this introduction to The Royals is paint-by-numbers and predictable. Perhaps part of the problem is timing: “royal fever” in the States is so very 2013-2014, and with ABC’s splashy Thursday night lineup and FOX’s behemoth Empire slaying it in the ratings, the very bland palette of The Royals literally pales in comparison. It just doesn’t take enough big chances, despite being on cable. The other problem is that England’s real royals are so compelling, how can a fictional set really compare? The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, their adorably expanding brood, and their rapscallion brother Prince Harry are a soap unto themselves.

Luckily, The Royals was already picked up for a second season two months before it debuted, so it has plenty of time to find its feet and discover a balance between Hamlet and One Tree Hill — both of which I adored. In fact, OTH creator Mark Schwahn is at the helm of this show, so one can only hope that the charm that made us love B. Davis and the gang in Tree Hill will invade this stuffy crop of nobles and give them some pep. “Staying the same will destroy us,” King Simon notes in a weary moment of candor with Helena, and that is precisely what this fledgling series needs to keep in mind. Amp up the camp, ratchet up the stakes and palace intrigue — and listen to the king. “Choose love,” Simon tells Liam as the episode wraps up. “Choose your own path. Those are the roads to travel.” And they’re the best roads for The Royals to discover soap opera success.

The Royals airs Sunday nights on E! At 10 PM.

(Originally posted on

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