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10 April 2024

What went wrong with The Regime?

In HBO’s political satire, every line sinks like a stone, and every episode lasts for a year.

By Rachel Cooke

In ten years’ time, there may not be any humanities departments left in Britain’s universities. But if there are, more than one PhD will surely be devoted to HBO’s political satire The Regime, how it became such a stinker and what this all says about 2024.  

So much talent, and presumably so much cash (though the producers, I couldn’t help but notice, used Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens as the setting for a spurious, state-sponsored sugar beet festival) – and yet, every line sinks like a stone, every episode lasts for a year. Watch it, dear future students, and wonder at the unbridled decadence, at the “jokes” about mould and black radishes and at the crazy clothes, which are very Oscar-de-la-Renta-does-dirndl and in another life, would be quite perfect for Melania Trump.

I wanted to love it, of course. The cast! Kate Winslet is Elena Vernham, the deluded chancellor of a fictional country in “Middle Europe”, where she lives in a palace (actually a former luxury hotel) with her French husband Nicholas (Guillaume Gallienne) and Oscar, the small boy who was “squeezed out” for her by a surrogate. (In a spare bedroom, incidentally, is her dead daddy, whom she keeps in a glass coffin, Lenin-style.)

Her terrified advisers – Elena is increasingly dictatorial – are played by a crowd of deeply talented British actors, among them Andrea Riseborough, David Bamber and Henry Goodman. Finally, there is the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Herbert Zubak, a psychopathic soldier who’ll become her closest confidant thanks to his ways with potatoes and the aforementioned black radishes, but whose first job is to monitor palace humidity levels. Elena, you see, is terrified of mould, and therefore of moisture, too. 

I read that Hugh Grant will be along soon but, alas, I doubt I’ll be around to see him. As fascinating as it is to watch such a high-class catastrophe – at first, I was riveted, staring at the screen open-mouthed, like a mongoose that has just caught sight of a newly laid egg – I’m only human: two episodes of this is about all I can take. Everyone does their best, including its director, Stephen Frears, but the script is so unfunny, and the tone so uneven, you wonder what on earth its writer, Will Tracy, was thinking (he wrote The Menu, and has worked on Succession). Though Tracy, an American, has fallen hard for the British way with baroque swearing and cock gags, he seems not to know how to deploy them. The series is a freshly painted wall, and here he is with his aerosol, spraying dicks over everything. 

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As for the satire, where is it? I get that Tracy probably didn’t go interrailing as a teenager. But the stuff about Europe, with its funny foods, its funny smells and its Ruritanian armies – at a palace banquet, each table comes with a toy drum as well as candles and cutlery – doesn’t quite play in the era of Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. There is, I also think, a nervousness here, and so he makes it broad: Winslet is channelling the British royal family, her mouth twisted at the side like Charles’s, and the voice all husky and posh like Camilla’s. But the last time I looked, the UK was a democracy (I know, I know). It all just feels a bit wonky, and when it’s not wonky, it’s yuck. By episode two, Zubak is practising auto-asphyxiation beneath the portrait of Elena that hangs on his bedroom wall, and having (yes, really) wet dreams about her. No wonder Henry Goodman looks like he’s about to throw up. 

I laughed only once, when Elena tunelessly sang Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” at a dinner to celebrate the anniversary of her election “victory” seven years ago (Nicholas was on keyboards, with a face that brought to mind an Eighties novelty act). The high-ups listening were straight-faced as she warbled: Bamber was vicar-like, and Goodman somehow contrived to flinch only inwardly. For a second, my own buttocks released. But then we were back to the sacred-land-of-the-sugar-beet gags, and faster than you could say pierogi, I was on my phone, looking up the cost of a summer flight to Kraków or Ljubljana.

The Regime
HBO/Sky Atlantic

[See also: Steven Knight’s This Town review: a mess]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward