The job of a pilot is to introduce the major characters, set up the primary conflict, and then hook the audience into coming back for more. The Royals succeeds at all of these things, and surprisingly it’s not as soapy as I was expecting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a still a soap opera, and the pilot gives me serious OC vibes, particularly at the beginning. But maybe it’s because the show begins with a Death In The Family or maybe it’s because the characters are loosely based on the real Windsors, and therefore are recognizable as actual people, but I was expecting Dynasty levels of soap and really didn’t get that, most of the time—there was a pretty classic Dynasty scene toward the end.
But let’s go back to the beginning, where we meet the somewhat dissolute heirs of the King and Queen of England. Princess Eleanor is a party girl who’s dropped out of college and has a recreational drug problem at the very least. Her story begins with an up-skirt photo being plastered on the tabloids. Then there’s her twin brother, Prince Liam, a handsome university student who looks like the movie star version of Prince William—imagine if Wills didn’t lose his hair or start developing the unfortunate Windsor horse face. At the same time that Eleanor is being called home to account for her embarrassing photo op, Liam is busted in bed with a common American girl by his security. The twins arrive home to the palace only to find out that their older brother, Robert, has been killed.
Suddenly Liam is the heir apparent, and Eleanor is…well not much changes for her. She’s that much closer to the throne, I guess, but the burdens all fall on Liam. Which prompts their father, King Simon—I find this name completely unrealistic for an English king, but correct me if I’m wrong, royal watchers—to ask Parliament to hold a referendum on abolishing the monarchy. That’s our season-long plot—to abolish, or not to abolish. Queen Helena (Elizabeth Hurley), is staunchly against abolishing the monarchy, as it’s the only life she’s known. Helena is obviously modeled on Diana—a media savvy royal—but Hurley really makes Helena her own. She’s cunning, controlling, and bitchy, but she’s also driven by duty. One episode in and I’m not ready to (love to) hate her, because her motivation is so clear and believable.
A couple of subplots develop, involving Liam and Eleanor. That American girl Liam slept with turns out to be Ophelia, the daughter of the palace’s head of security. Though the details aren’t made clear, Ophelia’s mother died in the recent past because of the royal family, in what sounds like a failed assassination plot. Her father, Ted, and Helena both want Ophelia and Liam to not see each other anymore—which guarantees that they do. The soapiest scene in the episode is when Helena tries to scare off Ophelia and she refuses to be cowed—out of everyone introduced so far I’m #TeamOphelia. She’s obviously meant to be a Duchess Kate stand-in, but because Ophelia is fictional and isn’t bound by actual duty and tradition, she’s far more engaging. She’s actually allowed to display a personality.
The other subplot features Eleanor and her new bodyguard, Jasper. At first he seems nervous and bumbling, but then we learn he’s the show’s version of the Evil Butler archetype. He drugs Eleanor, sleeps with her and tapes it, then blackmails her with the sex tape. Eleanor is Troubled, but she also seems pretty smart and capable, so it ought to be interesting to watch her and Evil Butler Jasper square off throughout the season. And to round out the proceedings, we also meet the king’s lecherous younger brother, Prince Cyrus—again, these names!—who may or may not be in earnest when he jokes about offing his brother to become king. His two air-head socialite daughters, the Princesses Penelope and Maribel, are the comic relief and they’re clearly stand-ins for the York Princesses. I think I’d be offended if I was them, but Penelope and Maribel do deliver some decent comedy.
So that’s The Royals, season one—a royal family on the brink of abolition, a power struggle between a queen and her son’s common girlfriend, and a sex tape. Are you in?