Don't Watch the Throne: The Royals Is Too Dumb to Be Fun

E!'s new show demonstrates how to make soapy drama boring.

At Buzzfeed recently, Ira Madison turned a four-minute clip of the soap opera Dynasty into an 18-step guide to the art of “throwing shade.” First coined in '80s gay subculture and recently mainstreamed by RuPaul’s Drag Race, "shade" refers to a certain kind of passive-aggressive trash talking, and the Dynasty clip is its platonic ideal: a tennis match of implied insults between two powerful women. This particular bout is won when Dominique Deveraux says “It’s burned,” after taking a sip of Alexis Carrington's champagne, dismissing both Carrington's taste and status with a simple observation.

Shade is fun to watch—there’s the colosseum-goer’s pleasure of seeing people fight, combined with the puzzle-solver's joy in decoding each insult. Reality TV has helped make the term popular, but shade’s actually not what the Real Housewives serve when they flip tables and call one another whores. As opposed to macho trash-talking and threats, shade takes finesse; as the drag queen Dorian Corey put it in her famous explanation of the term, “Shade is, ‘I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly.’”

I kept thinking about shade and that Dynasty scene while watching the first three episodes of The Royals, E!’s new drama about the modern British monarchy. Elizabeth Hurley stars as a glamorous and icy Queen of England who, in theory, should also be able to contend for the title of TV’s queen of shade. The real-life royal family persists as a symbol of old-world respectability and manners; making it into a soap opera, even one that sits alongside Keeping Up With the Kardashians, would seemingly require staging conflicts that are fought with a degree of cleverness. Besides, The Royals explicitly wants to be compared to Dynasty—actress Joan Collins will appear in an upcoming episode—and who wouldn't enjoy seeing the Downton Abbey themes of repression and doublespeak updated for the age of the selfie?

But it turns out the show indulges no stereotypes of British upper-crust sophistication, instead making its royals into dull copies of any generic American celebrity clan. Hurley's Queen Helena does clash cattily with Ophelia, the commoner sleeping with her son Liam, and with Princess Eleanor, her Lindsay Lohan-like daughter. But she does so for the most part by simply telling the two women that they’re disgraceful, and when Eleanor cries “FML” (“the F word, my life,” the queen’s footman graciously explains), it’s only a few minutes before Helena’s parroting it back. Everyone else is just as blatant: The king's brother Cyrus communicates his murderous ambition by brandishing weapons literally behind the king’s back and telling anyone who passes by that he wants the throne; the only banter would-be Abercrombie models Liam and Ophelia ever have is about their preferred caffeinated beverages.

The show itself is as thuddingly obvious as its characters, and not even as depraved. Creator Mark Schwahn ran the early-aughts teen soap One Tree Hill, and has imported every cloying trope he helped make ubiquitous on The CW and ABC Family. Most egregious is the overactive use of music to manipulate the mood; not a scene goes by without a distracting background song, usually from some guy with bangs yowling over power chords. There’s also the told-not-shown love story—like I said, the would-be-prince and his forbidden lover have coffeetalk instead of chemistry—and the misguided desire to sneak a touching, soulful family drama under all the self-conscious trashiness. Heart-to-hearts stack against generic partying montages and back-room dealings; the confused tone grates, recalling the first draft of a teenager’s screenplay.

To the show's credit, it does seem to want to explore the question of what it's like to be part of an institution as scrutinized and hallowed as Buckingham Palace. The duties have taken such a toll that King Simon considers abolishing the monarchy, which horrifies the various hangers-on and aspirants to the throne. But coke-sniffing Princess Eleanor is the only person who actually seems burdened by royalty: Her mom constantly hectors her to be more regal, her hook-ups take advantage by filming sex tapes, and she's genuinely stricken when her eldest brother—the first heir to the throne—dies in a supposed accident. That death happens early on and, bizarrely, everyone else prattles on more or less unperturbed; the show seems to think it's charming when Prince Liam asks Ophelia on a date while at his sibling's funeral.

In this bountiful age of TV, it’s hard to understand why anyone would settle for making or watching a show like this: If you want schlocky familial power struggles, you can get a way better version on Fox with Empire. As with Royals, Empire's characters throw more brickbats than shade, but at least creator Lee Daniels embraces what's novel about his Shakespearian historical-drama update by making hip-hop a vibrant part of the show and writing some truly memorable antiheroes. The Royals by contrast feels utterly charmless and out of time; it’s Champagne frozen and rewarmed, the bubbles gone and the taste, well, burned.