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19 March 2024

The luxe vapidity of Palm Royale

Allison Janney is at her best in this glitzy series about feminism and Sixties Florida. But it should be much more fun than it is.

By Rachel Cooke

Palm Royale. It sounds like a flashy steakhouse and, in a way, it is: knives out, plenty of sauce on the side, there will be blood. But what we’re actually talking about is a Palm Beach, Florida, members’ club at the tail end of the Sixties: an exclusive institution that may be likened to Mar-a-Lago, with better manners and added Betty Friedan (a real life feminist has been seen in the vicinity, trailing turquoise beads and patchouli oil). It comes with a pool, tennis courts and buff waiters; one, Robert, is played by Ricky Martin, and I swear they’ve oiled his body. However, the real attraction – for the viewer, at least – is the group of queen bees who gather here, poised to sting any interloper. The sight of Allison Janney bossing it in outsize Pucci sunglasses means that I’m prepared, for the time being, to tolerate Palm Royale’s quite incredible luxe vapidity.

Janney plays Evelyn Rollins, “a stalwart adversary in the fight against paediatric cancer”. For almost a decade, Rollins has been named Fundraiser of the Year by Palm Beach’s daily gossip column, “The Shiny Sheet”. But things may be about to change. Another bee, Dinah Donahue (Leslie Bibb), is to be this year’s charity star. What will Evelyn do to maintain her position at the pinnacle of the town’s high society? (Answer: what will Evelyn not do?) A woman like her must make allies where she can, which is how – three episodes into this daffy series – her gimlet eye happens to fall on Maxine Simmons (Kristen Wiig), who identified herself a little earlier as one of the aforementioned interlopers by waving around a patent white leather Gucci bag that is several seasons old. 

In a way, this series is kind of marvellous: Desperate Housewives with wit and a fondant-fancy colour scheme. Wiig’s character – tiny spoilers ahead – is an impoverished wannabe whose wardrobe is purloined from her husband’s wealthy Aunt Norma (wow, it’s Carol Burnett!), who’s currently lying in a coma in a swank care facility (the husband, a pilot, has fallen out with his wealthy family, the D’ellacourts); meanwhile, Laura Dern is Evelyn’s disinherited stepdaughter Linda (formerly Penelope), the feminist, who runs cringe consciousness-raising workshops at Our Bodies, Our Bookshelves (do you see what they did there?). I love the cocktails, the mansions and (especially) the scenes when the bees head over to their favourite camp couturier to see the season’s new frocks. Oh, the brocade and the blowouts, the kaftans and the capri pants! This might be the best-dressed show ever (Alix Friedberg is the genius responsible for all this orange and green silk chiffon).

But it should be so much more fun than it is, and for this, we must blame the writing. Palm Royale is based on a novel (Mr and Mrs American Pie by Juliet Daniel), but a whole team of writers worked on the screenplay, and therein lies the problem, I’d say. It wants for a dastardly auteur: a Mike White (The White Lotus) or a Matthew Weiner (Mad Men). The tone is off. The series doesn’t know how mean it wants its characters to be, and thanks to this, claws have been trimmed. There are some funny lines. “I devoured Chariots of the Gods!” chirrups Maxine, when Linda brings up The Second Sex. But more often, the script tries to pass off clichés as jokes: Maxine (natch) is from Chattanooga; Linda, who likes batik, looks like an “indigent Mennonite railway priestess”. Being bad at something – eg making eggnog – isn’t in itself hilarious, and the director (Tate Taylor) doesn’t seem to know how to get good physical comedy out of his cast.

But we’ve got Janney, and to her we must cling: “Be still, my brocaded heart,” as another character puts it. She has never been better, rising above the script (and the rest of the cast) like some glorious 3-D billboard, all eyelashes and lacquered hair (do not approach with a naked flame). Her face! All the gold shantung in the world cannot detract from it; in the presence of other, lesser females her character resembles a stoat that’s about to swallow a mouse. “I long for a kinder, gentler time when a woman’s capacity to humiliate herself wasn’t so bottomless,” she says, at one point – words that when she voices them seem better, finer, than anything dear Betty F has to say.

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Palm Royale
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[See also: Mary & George is improbable, overblown and really quite rude]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024