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Review | “Palm Royale” does little with a lot

There’s a scene in “Palm Royale,” Apple TV Plus’ candy-colored period comedy about a newcomer trying to break into Palm Beach’s hottest social circle, in which Kristen Wiig’s character, Maxine, chats animatedly with a woman lying comatose in a bed while she rummages through her closet and “borrows” her designer clothes. And bags. And jewelry.

Some she wears. She pawns it. But Maxine’s chatter is the key to what Abe Sylvia’s adaptation of Juliet McDaniel’s novel says: “Mr. and Mrs. American Pie”, strives, albeit unevenly, to achieve this. Maxine’s monologue in front of an oblivious audience is there to calibrate how we should feel about our protagonist. Because it amounts to an “anti-performance,” which cannot be called manipulative precisely because it lacks an audience, the scene clarifies (or should) whether Maxine is malicious or dangerously deluded. In this case, it partially exonerates the scheming underdog at the heart of this series. Maxine seems ironically serious, as if trying to convince se that what is happening is consensual and even friendly. She seems like a misfit. She seems alone. Larcenous chatter is, in this sense, a typically Wiigian setting: sunny, tense and struggling for dignity.

Wiig is a comedy legend and she does a lot of scenes like these. But it’s symptomatic of the massive talent that “Palm Royale” accumulates and then inexplicably squanders that the woman lying comatose in that bed is none other than Carol Burnett.

This is a series about a decent Gatsby character who refuses to grind his teeth. It’s an intriguing premise: it’s hard to imagine someone with this particular combination of social cunning, rabid ambition, and utter ignorance. Enter Maxine, a Tallahassee native and borderline boor who wants to conquer Palm Beach – more specifically, the Palm Royale, a chic club whose circle of haughty doyennes she desperately wants to join. The women she is determined to win over as friends include Evelyn Rollins (Allison Janney), the usual “queen of the season”, her rising rival, Dinah Donahue (Leslie Bibb), and Mary Jones Davidsoul (a Julia Duffy underutilized). .

Maxine goes from humiliation to humiliation while aping their haughtiness and cheerfully rejecting their rejection. She’s the kind of social climber whose plans involve literally scaling the fence of the club she hopes to join, and her first few outings are easily parried by snobs (and by Ricky Martin’s Robert, the club’s bartender/waiter/bouncer ) who measure she is considered something between a misfit and an imposter. But Maxine, whose dark but pleasant husband (Josh Lucas) goes by the impressive name of D’ellacourt — a sort of shibboleth for the Palm Royale set, signaling wealth and pedigree — continues to pull off improbable stunts (and acquire social leverage) until they start. I wonder if they misjudged her.

The social world of 1969 Palm Beach is rounded out by Laura Dern’s Linda, Evelyn’s stepdaughter, an anti-war activist who rejected the superficial, rarefied world her stepmother occupies to open a feminist bookstore where she and her friend Virginia (Amber Chardae Robinson) work on consciousness. raise and build community. And Grayman (Dominic Burgess), in whose shop the ladies gather to chat and shop.

The ingredients here are good. The costumes are great, the sets sublime. The scenario, unfortunately, varies. Some of the dialogue is pleasant and enjoyable – Janney gets some great lines, and Bibb and Burgess do exquisite work with what they’re given. There are some truly great moments between women where a confrontational exchange turns into exhausted, fun intimacy. At its best, when it veers toward the caricature it sometimes seems to strive for, the show can approximate the verbal and visual pleasures of a Coen brothers comedy (think “Intolerable Cruelty”).

But with a plot as busy as its characters are thin, the result can be confusing when it’s not merely predictable — or ploddingly bureaucratic. The series at times takes Maxine’s quest to find her place in the world so seriously that it drifts into dramatic and serious territory (this is also true for Martin’s character), while at other times reveling in the extent to which everyone is a joke.

Speaking of jokes: my biggest criticism is that this series should, given this amazing cast, be funnier. But there’s so much atmosphere that “Palm Royale” never really gets its sea legs. Or sets a point of view. There’s also a good-hearted indeterminacy at the heart of the series that prevents the villainous premise from gelling with its nobler themes. It’s unclear exactly what he means about feminism, or about the queen of the season, or about Maxine herself, who at times seems naively frolicking toward the social success she dreams of while at other times flaunting a fierce instinct to prevail over her rivals.

None of this is necessarily disqualifying. Wiig is a lot of fun to watch – and good enough that she can do it almost reconciling all of this into a cohesive character pursuing the American dream.

Royal Palm will premiere with three episodes on March 20 on Apple TV Plus. Subsequent episodes will air weekly.

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