‘The Royals’ (Season 1): E!’s throwback to an earlier era

Turns out, this is your grandmother’s soap.

The 3-disc DVD release of The Royals: The Complete First Season from Lionsgate shows that you can indeed go back to the nighttime soap well for more fun, albeit in smaller doses.

Tallying 1.41 million viewers for its premiere episode, The Royals initially made the entertainment news rounds due to its distinction as the first scripted series offered by cable network E!, home to such “reality” fare as Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Launching on March 15, 2015 for a 10-episode first season, The Royals stars sultry (and very British) vixen Elizabeth Hurley as Helena, Queen of England, Vincent Regan as her husband, the earnest King Simon, and William Moseley and Alexandra Park as their twin children, Prince Liam and Princess Eleanor. Jake Maskall co-stars as Cyrus, Simon’s brother and the show’s main antagonist and Merritt Patterson as Liam’s love interest, Ophelia. Rounding out the cast is Tom Austen as Eleanor’s bodyguard, Jasper, and Oliver Milburn as Ted, the Royal Family’s head of security and Ophelia’s father.

Modern day England. Twins Prince Liam and Princess Eleanor enjoy the spoils of palace life and the freedom the monarchy affords them. But their hard-partying, hedonistic lifestyle comes to a screeching halt following their oldest brother’s death, throwing succession to the throne in disarray.

With Prince Liam now next in line, King Simon, ever the voice of reason in this hyper-tabloid take on royal life, decides he wants to abolish the monarchy. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with Queen Helena, who conspires with the King’s brother, Cyrus, to make sure steps are taken to keep the monarchy intact.

It’s this fear of losing what defines them that drives the overall story this first season.

And it fits the E! network’s aesthetic. Like the Kardashians, the fictional Henstridge family is famous for being famous. They have what they have and live how they live because they’re simply royal descendants. It’s not something they’ve worked to attain, and 21st century awareness of that fact provides the backbone of what the series suggests is the true struggle for royal folk these days.

What happens when they’re forced to be mere commoners? To live life in a class below anything they’ve ever known?

It turns out, some handle the idea better than others.

The Royals is truly Elizabeth Hurley’s show, much like Dynasty became Joan Collins’ show after she joined the cast in that series’ second season. You can see parallels in how Hurley portrays her Queen Helena to Dynasty‘s Queen Bitch of the 1980s.

No sooner do you think Hurley’s character and performance is inspired by Collins than Alexis herself pops up late in the season in a guest spot as Queen Helena’s mother.

Inspiration indeed.

But it’s most welcome; any time Collins gets to revisit her role as Alexis Carrington Colby, even if technically a different character, is a treat for fans, and viewers too young to remember that earlier show are treated to an example of perfect casting.

Along with its similarities to that particular eighties nighttime sudser, there’s also some Dallas in its DNA.

Not only is Prince Liam struggling to live up to the expectations of his father, the King, and his older brother, he also battles the Queen’s disapproval of his romancing Ophelia, the daughter of the royal head of security. The setup is reminiscent of Dallas prodigal son Bobby Ewing’s struggle to live up to his father’s expectations as an oil business exec, and the Ewing’s misgivings with his romancing of Pamela Barnes, daughter of the Ewing’s loser rival Cliff Barnes.

Despite the obvious influences, tabloid and social media awareness help modernize proceedings in The Royals.

Pushing it into the realm of 21st century storytelling is Princess Eleanor, who parties nonstop, drinks heavily and does drugs, all while trying to manage her public image in the tabloids and on social media. This of course is to the Queen’s annoyance, who’s often at odds with her daughter, selectively bailing her out of trouble and letting her sink to “teach her a lesson.”

Princess Eleanor’s romance with con man bodyguard Jasper provides her week-to-week struggle. The ‘will they-won’t they’ of the romance stays engaging. Does he really love her, or is it all part of a bigger con? What’s his endgame?

But stealing the show is the King’s brother, Cyrus, played with extra violent juice by Jake Maskall, who began his career on the BBC soap EastEnders.

Cyrus is sly, cunning, and will stop at nothing to stop his brother, the King of England, from abolishing the monarchy. Along with his idiot daughters (played by Lydia Rose Bewley and Hatty Preston to hilarious comic-relief effect), Cyrus is the epitome of evil, his only ounce of redemption showing in a scene with his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, who thinks she’s speaking to King Simon instead of Cyrus.

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And it’s Cyrus and his quest to become king that takes center stage when King Simon is badly injured in the second half of the season. This sets up the battle royal between he and Prince Liam, both trying to outwit the other to make sure they end up with the crown should the King not survive in the end.

The show met with mixed reviews by critics, but give credit where it’s due. E! has added needed content to the ranks of fictional television drama,  giving up an hour of precious faux-reality TV airtime to The Royals, which easily could have gone to another celeb-reality program.

It’s E!’s first foray into scripted fare, and hopefully not its last.

I found it best to watch The Royals as intended — weekly. It lacks some of the high velocity thrills much of today’s binge-all-episodes-on-Netflix-in-one-night viewers crave.

But it’s only 10 episodes, so it doesn’t get too bogged down or dragged out.

Unlike ShondaLand programs on ABC, the episode count is about right for this show, which takes a tad more time sequencing from scene to scene than the machine gun/rapid fire delivery of other contemporary prime time soaps.

Though it’ll inevitably be compared to shows like Gossip Girl, there’s no question it’s a throwback soap, pure and simple.

If you’re not a soap fan, especially of nighttime soaps, you probably aren’t reading this. But if you were a fan of shows like Dynasty and Dallas in the eighties, and you’re still into that sort of thing, The Royals are fun to party with for 10 weeks out of the year.

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