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Palm Royale Kristen Wiig Ricky Martin.jpg

How 'The Regime' and 'Palm Royale' Complicate Their Genres

By Chris Revelle | TV | March 29, 2024 |

By Chris Revelle | TV | March 29, 2024 |

Palm Royale Kristen Wiig Ricky Martin.jpg

Genre can be a tricky notion to pin down. Stories are very often more than one thing; they can be comedic and fantastical, dramatic and farcical, and so on. Genre is a shorthand meant to express broad expectations for what viewers or readers can expect from the media they’re engaging with. One might expect a set of tropes from a TV show labeled “fantasy” that would be quite different from what they’ll expect from a show labeled “sci-fi.” This makes genre a marketing concern at the end of the day and it can be somewhat restrictive. If stories can be more than one thing, then how do you represent it with just one genre? The definitions and hallmarks of each genre change over time as the culture changes. There’s the oft-stated idea that today’s comedy is usually cut with drama, complicating the idea of what a comedy is and can be. As a complementary pair of prestige streaming series about troubled femmes trying to grab and hold onto power, The Regime (on Max) and Palm Royale (on AppleTV+) demonstrate how complicated genre can be.

The Regime is billed as a comedic political satire led by Kate Winslet, primarily a dramatic actor, and is not exactly ha-ha funny. Palm Royale is billed on AppleTV+’s platform as a drama led by Kristen Wiig, primarily a comedic actor, and is quite jokey and heightened. Given that both shows have been described elsewhere as “comedy-drama” or “dramedy,” it seems safe to assume there’s an intentional blurring of the lines here. Casting leads in roles that are, to some extent, against their usual type creates an inherent tension. The key is in using that tension effectively to meld different tones into a magical combination that works equally as a comedy or drama or whatever else is thrown in. So how do these shows handle this delicate balancing act?

The Regime sets out to tell a story about a head of state being so thoroughly corrupt and insulated from their people that she acts like a ridiculous child. Given that the show focuses primarily on Winslet’s Elena Vernham and the foibles of her administration, the quality of Elena as a character decides a great deal for the series as a whole. As-is, the character of Elena Vernham can be seen as bifurcated, split into two Elenas: Comedy Elena and Drama Elena. Drama Elena is a shrewd, calculating, and incisive stateswoman who has a keen understanding of global geopolitics and how to bend them to make her a lot of money. Drama Elena is a former physician who is acutely aware of her precarious situation but approaches her issues with confidence and well-composed venom. We see Drama Elena handle Martha Plimpton’s US Senator Judith Holt in a tense negotiation before Herbert Zubak comes in to summon Comedy Elena. Comedy Elena is a flighty superstitious hypochondriac who lacks any shred of forethought, strategic thinking, or even basic medical knowledge and is very easily led by her whims. Herbert seems to be the primary catalyst for Comedy Elena: she agrees to his silly “folk remedies” despite their lack of actual effect, she gives him seeming carte blanche to speak and act on her behalf, and she is drawn to Herbert like a shrieking magnet. Comedy Elena throws tantrums and Drama Elena throws shade.

It’s entirely plausible for Elena to be all of these things; humans are walking nests of contradictions. The trouble is that these two sides of her are very poorly connected which makes the character feel wildly inconsistent. The most recent episode “Midnight Feast” is a great example. Throughout the episode, Elena is insistent that the entire palace is swelteringly hot despite many signs that it’s actually quite frigid due to the intense AC units she has placed everywhere (Comedy Elena). Without a scene or a moment that might suggest how or why she reconsidered, we later find Elena in a car discussing with her husband how it’s almost certainly perimenopausal hot flashes at play, settling things quite calmly and cooly (Drama Elena). Elena’s pivot between these two aspects is reflected by the series overall. Some scenes are clearly there for absurd moments (Elena suddenly losing her shit during a public talk) and others are for grounded ones (Elena acknowledging that the protests against her are real). These two Elenas don’t combine and therefore neither do the show’s tones. Thus the genre is complicated: sometimes comedy, sometimes drama, moment to moment.

Palm Royale is about the desperate machinations of Wiig’s Maxine Dellacorte-Simmons as she tries to break into the high society set of Palm Beach, Florida in 1969 at the titular resort club. Like The Regime, Palm Royale is quite character-driven, so the entertainment comes from watching the manic Stepford smiler Maxine careen into perfectly manicured lives of society ladies and spread chaos like Pandora’s box. The show seems to be going for a Desperate Housewives-type Douglas Sirk confection where melodrama and color-saturated artifice hide satirical barbs which also means that by its nature, Palm Royale exists at a crossroads of genres.

It’s a story about grift and a toppling tower of hasty lies and it’s also an aggressively silly show that uses the otherwise soapy narrative to showcase sitcom antics like Maxine and Allison Janney’s Evelyn having a 1960s fashion arm’s race at the local atelier or a charity auction that goes off the rails once Maxine is stuck bidding for the item she stole and donated. The drama part of things is bubbling ever-present under the surface of Maxine’s face: she’s as desperate to achieve her goal as she is to hide her true self and circumstances. The comedic and dramatic tones combine, with uneven results. Sometimes, these tones join together into a queasy and nervous sense of unease that allows the viewer to feel as on-the-brink as Maxine. Other times, it seems like the tones are not evenly matched. The heightened Desperate Housewives tone reads as comedic and ridiculous and it seems like it’s where the Palm Royale feels most at home with Wiig and Janney sparring as two Ridiculous Women in Ridiculous Dresses. This frequently overpowers what are meant to be small, quiet, or more dramatic character moments. Curiously, there are also times when Palm Royale winds up to what should be a comedic beat before pulling back.

There’s a sequence in which Maxine has invited the other society ladies to the Dellacorte mansion for cocktails and the guests begin to arrive. The first lady comes in, makes a snide comment, and then, as they’re sauntering over to the parlor, orders a complicated cocktail with a bunch of special requests (“extra cold” “bourbon instead of whiskey” etc). Just as Maxine has started assembling one drink, another lady arrives and the whole sequence starts again. Maxine gets increasingly flustered as she tries to remember all the drink names and special requests and to find all the ingredients. I understand if the show wished to swerve away from the obvious and maybe building to some crazy set piece where the drinks go horribly wrong is too expected. Instead, we cut from this chaos to Maxine entering the parlor, drinks made, and not a single sign of this struggle. It’s a demonstration of how much Maxine is a mess behind the chipper mask, but it feels like an anti-climax. This has the net effect of dampening the humor and when the comedy has overshadowed the drama, this makes for a strange experience. It’s as if, on its way to melodramatic absurdity, Palm Royale feels self-conscious and pulls back, meaning it never quite rises to the level of campy fun it could and there’s not much dramatic heft to fill in the gap.

To be clear, neither show is worse for playing with different genres, it’s that both shows struggle to balance those genres and their attendant tones. Neither Palm Royale nor The Regime are quite nailing the mix, but I like that both are trying something. Whether they’re successful is something else entirely, but I appreciate that both shows strive to create unique textures for their stories.