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‘Palm Royale’: Kristen Wiig and Ricky Martin have a blast in new comedy

Kristen Wiig is a unique talent with not just timing but also bona-fide screen presence. ‘Palm Royale’ makes for a fine showcase

A still from 'Palm Royale'
A still from 'Palm Royale'

I am never in over my head,” says Maxine, appalled. “It would be disrespectful to my hairdresser.” In Apple TV+’s sumptuous new comedy Palm Royale, Kristen Wiig plays Maxine Dellacorte-Simmons, a woman who really wants that pesky Simmons bit dropped so that she—a social climber positively dripping with moxie—can take her rightful place, or find her rightful rung, among the posers and pretenders of Palm Beach society. The year is 1969, the clothes are unimaginably florid and the waiters are supercilious.

When served a cocktail in a members-only club, Maxine asks if she should sign for it. “Excuse me?” sneers her waiter, taking care not to mask his scorn. “Did I spill?” shoots back Maxine, trying to hold her own. “In a manner,” sighs the waiter, silencing her while looking pained at this gauche intruder who doesn’t know the ways of their world. For me, Palm Royale is buoyed by these deliciously jagged lines of dialogue and voiceover. The show is not only ostentatious but also Austen-tatious, and the words go down easy as a well-shaken Mai Tai on a scorching day.

That waiter is played by Ricky Martin, ageless and shirtless, looking like an action figure but giving his character much heart. The lavish series, created by Abe Sylvia and based on Juliet Daniel’s novel Mr & Mrs American Pie, is glamorously cast, featuring superlative actors like Laura Dern and Allison Janney and even the great Carol Burnett who, with her character first comatose then incapable of speech, spends most of the 10-episode season bereft of dialogue — which doesn’t get in the way of her ability to get a laugh.

Burnett, best known for the pathbreaking The Carol Burnett Show in the 1960s and 1970s, and films like Annie and Noises Off, returned to the screen with Better Call Saul a couple of years ago, and the comic legend is a stellar role model for Wiig as the Saturday Night Live comedian uses this series to show off her acting chops. Wiig—whose middle name happens to be Carroll—used to be one of SNL’s most consistent performers, a constant and fearless laugh-hunter (occasionally with tiny hands), who went on to co-write the smash hit Bridesmaids. I can’t forget how effortlessly she played a young Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development. She’s a unique talent with not just timing but also bona-fide screen presence. Palm Royale makes for a fine showcase.

In the series, Wiig’s Maxine is trying her best to belong. She gazes at the women who preside over Palm Beach society with fascination and awe, her jaw frequently unglued as she marvels at their ability to preen. She gushes about how good the high-society ladies are in the art of getting ready. “They are both the marble and the Michelangelo,” she describes, wistfully.

This is a voiceover-driven series, and we hear Maxine pontificate, with resolute, overcompensatory sunniness, as we watch the actions unfold. A former beauty queen, Maxine is frequently cut down to size by the old-money ladies she admires, but as narrators go, she reminds me of the underestimated manipulator in R.F. Kuang’s (delightful) novel Yellowface. Only that Maxine uses prettier words.

Does Maxine belong? She’s lying, cheating and literally stealing in order to keep up the facade, but, in the wealthiest corner of Palm Beach, so are the rest of the people around her. Everyone in this world has got dirty secrets— there is literally an entire Rolodex full of them—and Palm Royale merrily scrutinises why people hide what they are hiding. Dern, for instance, plays a passionate feminist radical. She describes herself as a revolutionary (Maxine, on the other hand, describes her as “Tall. Red hair. Wears too much denim”) yet even she has something up her (often denim) sleeves.

The cast is uniformly strong, and the magic comes from the friction Maxine has with Allison Janney’s Evelyn—queen-in-waiting of the swish set—and with Ricky Martin’s Robert Diaz, a former Marine who is certainly more than a “pool boy”. Martin plays Diaz with sensitivity, but in the style of a Hollywood actor from way back in the day—and the haircut only helps sell this squeaky-clean persona.

Janney, meanwhile, gives us a complicated and scheming manipulator who has taken her own time to find footholds. In one scene we see her rummaging under Burnett’s immobile body for the key to a safety deposit box, exactly as Maxine does. Yet when Evelyn meets Maxine, she showers her with condescension. “You poor dear,” Evelyn says after hearing of Maxine’s latest mistake, somehow making the word “dear” sound like an animal caught in the headlights. This is no surprise, because Janney is—as those in the know already know—the jackal.

Palm Royale is sumptuous looking—the frames are paintings with dark mansions wreathed in inky blue, interrupted by unlikely patches of amber sunlight—but, perhaps in tribute to the fake tans and the plastic surgeons native to that world, most actors also look plasticine-faced, wrinkle-less and appearing exactly the same in 20-year old flashbacks. This cultivated (and digitally-aided) flawlessness feels strange, like vintage Instagram filters, unsubtly smoothening cheeks but also taking away our ability to connect with the characters.

“Why let truth get in the way of a sunny day?” Maxine says, choosing to put off confessions because her husband is enjoying his morning in the pool. Palm Royale is a glossy series that occasionally gets too convoluted and dramatic. It gets messy. The wit, however, is always present, like a fat old sun, or like the lime balanced on the edge of a highball glass. Drink up.

Streaming tip of the week

One of the best movies about social climbers and the hierarchies hidden in plain sight is Mean Girls (Amazon Prime) which turned 20 this year. Written by Tina Fey and directed by Mark Waters, it stars Lindsay Lohan as a homeschooled girl trying to fit in among high school cliques.

Also read: Paulo Coelho's ‘Maktub’: rehashed advice and pop philosophy

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