‘Palm Royale’ Is a Real Waste of Kristen Wiig

‘Palm Royale’ Is a Real Waste of Kristen Wiig

Most of us first got to know Kristen Wiig when she was a cast member on Saturday Night Live. With well over 100 episodes to her credit before she left in 2012, Wiig was a true all-star, as convincing playing a sexpot or ingénue as she was a creep or monster. As a physical comedian, she was by far the standout of her cast; her talent for limb flails was comparable to Kermit the Frog’s. She’s not just one of the best comic actors working: She’s probably among the best ever to do it. But if you had hoped AppleTV+’s Palm Royale — Wiig’s first live-action TV series in over two years — was the kind of project where she got to be a kooky loon, I’m sorry to say it’s the kind where she’s aiming for nuance. It’s not that she fails; it’s just such a waste of a goof!

Palm Royale is set at and around the titular country club, which in 1969 is by far the most exclusive in Palm Beach, Florida. Very early in the series premiere, we watch Maxine (Wiig) scale a wall, post up at a poolside table and try to insert herself in a conversation among Evelyn (Allison Janney), Dinah (Leslie Bibb), Mary (Julia Duffy) and Raquel (Claudia Ferri). She doesn’t need an introduction because she knows them all from her fanatical reading of the “Shiny Sheet,” as Palm Beach’s local newspaper is colloquially known. But when she asks her server Robert (Ricky Martin) if she doesn’t need to sign for the Grasshopper he’s just delivered, she gives herself away as an interloper. We then see that Maxine has been “borrowing” her resort wear from Norma (Carol Burnett), a comatose woman living in an elegant nursing home, and that despite her pretensions, Maxine is staying in an unimpressive motel. Contriving a “chance” meeting with Dinah entangles Maxine with her and leads to their sharing a hugely scandalous secret, which Maxine trades on to secure Dinah’s sponsorship for Maxine to join the club. And although Dinah doubts Maxine’s claims to have married an heir to a mouthwash and plastics fortune, that turns out to be true — kind of.

Abe Sylvia, who (pretty loosely) adapted the series from Juliet McDaniel’s 2018 novel Mr. and Mrs. American Pie, has extensive experience writing wealthy women in complicated circumstances. His credits include The AffairDead to MeFilthy Rich (a Kim Cattrall vehicle about a secret illegitimate child roiling a wildly famous and successful family of televangelists, which lasted one season on Fox, probably because no one watched it but me) and the feature film The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Tonally, though, Palm Royale’s closest analogue from recent history isn’t any of the above. It’s Desperate Housewives, a soap opera/thriller, in which several glamorous women seemingly trapped in an insular community jockey for position and status. In the process, they get into madcap situations, and get off sick burns.

The biggest divergence from Housewives is that while the earlier show was, as its title suggests, an ensemble, Maxine is firmly established here as our protagonist (or antihero). And whereas none of the Housewives ever really seemed like they believed their various machinations and schemes would bring them true and lasting happiness, the period setting makes it easier for the viewer to trust Maxine when she tells us, repeatedly, that rising up the ranks of Palm Beach’s society will fulfill all her dreams. In 1969, it seems easier for women to Have It All simply because there was less All for most women to try to Have.

We eventually learn that Maxine grew up in orphanages in Tennessee, and attempted social mobility via beauty pageants, with some success. It’s frustratingly easy to imagine a version of this show that’s solely concerned with her attempts to break into this resolutely clannish world, despite her lack of pedigree. I Love Lucy had an acclaimed run placing a gifted physical comedian in wacky situations and seeing how far she could take them; in the hands of a Tracey “New Saved By the Bell” Wigfield, for example, this premise could have been realized in a 40-jokes-a-minute format — particularly given that the cast also includes sitcom veterans Janney (Mom), Duffy (Newhart) and Bibb (Popular), and could have kept up with that kind of pace. (Sketch comic Burnett is probably not up for physical comedy anymore, but consigning her to a role that is, for most of the season, non-speaking is a drag.) 

But instead of going hard after the premise’s comedic possibilities, Sylvia has emulated the mystery element of Housewives. We get about a dozen main characters, virtually all of whom are keeping major secrets. Information related to their mystery plots dribbles out at wildly irregular intervals, including between characters who’ve supposedly known each other for decades, but have waited until this arriviste showed up to disrupt everything. Which characters we’re supposed to be rooting for, and why, feels like it’s changing not according to recognizable human psychology but because the various writers of these 10 episodes did their work in silos and never read each other’s scripts. 

And for a show in which the titular location is practically another character, very little effort seems to have been expended on making its rules feel consistent. For instance, we find out that Evelyn’s husband Skeet (Bruce Dern) — who is living in the same long-term care facility as Norma, and who has been very slowly dying from the complications of a traumatic injury suffered many years earlier — feels deeply guilty that his familial wealth came from railroads that displaced Indigenous populations; he is disconnected from the privileges of his millions. Yet his wife is a queen bee of the society pages, second only to Norma: How, if Skeet apparently has such disdain for Palm Beach social life? We find out that Evelyn, like Maxine, didn’t come from money either, and while a former showgirl like Evelyn does seem like the kind of partner a man like Skeet would seek out, how did they meet? Was she as status-conscious then? If not, how did she rise without him? If so, what did he ever like about her? In a show that’s largely about the contortions Maxine is going through to insinuate herself in this world, there’s no interest in portraying how Evelyn did it?

Or: Evelyn is very anxious to get her hands on Norma’s Rolodex, in which she noted incriminating information about everyone she knew. It’s implied that Norma even has blackmail material on the just-sworn-in president, Richard Nixon. Evelyn’s pretty sure the Rolodex is in Norma’s safe deposit box, and demands that Maxine track down the key. But from what we see, Norma’s been incapacitated, her house empty, for some time before Maxine comes to town. Why didn’t Evelyn sneak into Norma’s house to look for it? Or search Norma’s room at the nursing home, since Skeet’s room is just down the hall? If we’re supposed to think these women are master tacticians constantly plotting against each other, why make it seem like Evelyn was just in standby mode until Maxine showed up?

OR: Also in Norma’s safe deposit box, Maxine finds a very old invitation to the wedding of her new leftist friend Linda (Laura Dern) to someone Maxine knows very well but who has never told Maxine about the engagement. Maxine is deeply shocked by this revelation, even though we’re told she’s been reading The Shiny Sheet long enough to know the names of society ladies who died before Maxine was born. How did Maxine miss coverage of the engagement? (For that matter, how did Maxine keep up with The Shiny Sheet as fanatically as we’re told she did, growing up poor in Tennessee? Did they subscribe to The Palm Beach Daily News at her local public library?)

OR: How is Norma’s gigantic mansion so clean? Every inch of this joint is covered in drapes and brocade, the dining room table still set with a full service, but we never see house staff keeping things up. (Robert is officially Norma’s pool boy, but we never actually see him cleaning the pool.) Socialites’ lives don’t function without their support staff. Those people’s perspectives would be illuminating, but even showing us how the grande dames treat or ignore their domestic workers could have helped us understand how the show regards its main characters, and what’s involved in maintaining this specific brand of opulence to community standards.

Setting aside, for a moment, the deficits of the plot: This is absolutely Kristen Wiig’s show, and in the roughly 80 percent of scenes she has to anchor, she is never less than 100 percent committed. Initially introduced as an unapologetic climber, flashbacks to earlier days in her marriage to her husband Douglas (Josh Lucas) give depth to her character and let us see that when she urges a cynical Dinah to believe in love, it’s coming from Maxine’s own lived experience. In the present day, the solidity of Maxine’s marriage varies dramatically from episode to episode, but that isn’t Wiig’s fault (or, not entirely; she is an executive producer on the show) and Wiig does as much as anyone could to locate the emotional truth that underpins Doug and Maxine’s scenes together. Wiig also mostly sells Maxine’s switches from sweet dimbulb to calculating strategist to folksy sage. 

So I get why Wiig wanted to do this: Maxine gives her a chance to show off everything she can do, and if it sometimes seems like this single production is making her play four different characters depending on where we are in the series, it’s not like she doesn’t know how to do that. It’s what she did on SNL for years.

With its warehouses’ worth of midseason fashion and luxe production design, Palm Royale is visually arresting. That may be where your engagement ends. The show’s marketing primes you for the TV equivalent of a dip in turquoise waters on a sweltering day. It’s just a soggy towel. 


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