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Palm Royale_Apple TV_Maxine_Kristen Wiig.jpg

Is 'Palm Royale' the New 'Desperate Housewives'? Not Even Close

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | March 28, 2024 |

By Kaleena Rivera | TV | March 28, 2024 |

Palm Royale_Apple TV_Maxine_Kristen Wiig.jpg

In 2004, ABC added a show with a largely unknown cast to its Sunday night roster, a seemingly frivolous little hour-long comedy-drama called Desperate Housewives. To the surprise of many, that series would go on to be a cultural phenomenon, launching multiple careers and garnering seven Primetime Emmys and three Golden Globe awards over the course of its eight-year run. For most of the aughts, it seemed like you couldn’t pass a single newsstand without seeing some reference to the denizens of the fictional Wisteria Lane, the setting for this suburban soap opera, where every perfect home harbored at least one or two scandalous secrets.

I’m in no way prone to nostalgia, but as I made it through the first four episodes of Apple TV’s Palm Royale, I found myself thinking about that ABC drama and wondered how much, if any, influence it had on creator Abe Sylvia and, most importantly, could it have more? Because even though the two shows sport a number of tonal similarities, Palm Royale forgot the cardinal rule when it comes to soap: be intriguing.

On paper, it works. You’ve got 1960s Florida with all of its tropical pastels with splashes of art deco, class division, criminal acts which may or may not turn deadly; for God’s sake, it stars Kristen Wiig, Allison Janney, and Carol freakin’ Burnett, this should be like commissioning Claude Monet to do a paint-by-numbers. But as we’ve seen before (cough The New Look), even people at the top of their game can’t overcome a flat story and mediocre script.

It’s bad enough that we’re still waiting for things to heat up nearly halfway through the season—a fast-paced auction and a dream sequence wherein Wiig’s social climbing Maxine smothers her elderly in-law, the filthy rich and conveniently comatose Norma Dellacorte (Burnett), are the few moments where anything resembling tension happens on screen. Now, tension doesn’t only occur in blatantly dramatic scenes; in fact, most of my favorite moments in film are when two people are merely sitting across from one another in conversation. But this is a feat that’s never achieved with the dialogue presented here. When Maxine, whose number one goal in life is to be a member of the uber-exclusive Palm Royale club, is vying for Dinah’s (Leslie Bibb) sponsorship, she launches into a monologue so lengthy and aimless that even Dinah is forced to admit, “I have lost the thread here, Maxine.” Later, when Dinah approaches Maxine over a veiled threat to expose a huge secret that would utterly destroy her reputation, going so far as to call her a “bitch,” that good old soap opera verbal staple, the confrontation is about as heated as a bowl of tepid oatmeal. Dallas, this is not.

I feel badly for Wiig here, because the effort she’s putting into making Maxine as multi-dimensional as possible is evident. But Maxine’s motivation is never all that interesting, a setback that subsequently robs her of any sort of draw. She isn’t vicious, and her ambition never manifests beyond tasteless thievery and relies mainly on being ingratiating, with rarely any strategy involved. Coupled with her delusions of social grandeur, the final result is a woman who’s largely just pathetic, which makes for a terrible lead; you can have a main character who acts pathetic at times but occupying that space with nothing to counterbalance it will turn off a number of viewers.

To the show’s great misfortune, Wiig’s still the most lively thing here. Janney’s imposing Evelyn Rollins, the de facto leader of the Palm Royale socialites, is a role she can genuinely play in her sleep since she’s basically an uninspired composite of a half dozen previous Janney roles (from better projects, no less). Laura Dern is here as well, playing a hippie feminist whose reasoning for repeatedly coming to Maxine’s aid always remains a baffling mystery even when an explanation is alluded to. Dragging all of this down further is Ricky Martin, who, on the surface, seems perfect as the Palm Royale bartender and Norma’s confidante (and presumably more), but his comedic prowess isn’t up to the task, especially when it comes to trading barbs with the likes of Wiig.

With so-so characterization and little in the way of drama or comedy—the only time I laughed out loud was when Maxine is attempting to console her nail tech, Mitzi (a surprisingly charming Kaia Gerber), after a break up but has to interrupt her to ask, “You had sex before dinner?”—there’s not much to sell here. Even the show’s aesthetics are lackluster; between the staging and costuming, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Palm Royale isn’t an elaborate 60s-themed costume party rather than the time period these people are genuinely inhabiting (the injected historic reminders such as second wave feminism, Nixon, and abortion feel just as inconsequential). Like the elaborate tablescape that goes untouched at Maxine’s cocktail party, Palm Royale is a spread that’s sadly been squandered.

Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. She can be found on Bluesky here or Twitter.