“The Royals” is bloody bad, which for E!’s purposes means it should fit right in. The channel best known for keeping up with the Kardashians has made its first foray into scripted drama, and managed to find subject matter that’s organically suited to the same unabashedly trashy niche. Wildly uneven in tone and beyond hammy in terms of the performances, the show, replete with the requisite advance buzz, will likely result in many embracing its camp qualities, which tend to make “Empire” look as stately as “Downton Abbey.” Stewarded by “One Tree Hill” alums, think of this as “One Palace Hill.”
That reference actually is less snarky than oddly appropriate, since this new drama owes a debt to the schlockiest days of youth-oriented WB dramas, including the annoying habit of using background songs to constantly set the mood, as if the target viewers must have every soapy twist and emotion spoon-fed to them.
As for the sleaze factor, even that feels a trifle tepid under the circumstances. Yes, this fictional British royal family is rich, fractious and licentious, but in terms of misbehaving elites, the Borgias or Tudors would eat this bunch for breakfast.
The big plot flourish takes place early in the super-sized premiere, as the heir to the throne dies in an accident, leaving his playboy younger brother, Liam (William Moseley), next in line for the throne. But the loss has emotionally wounded his father the king (Vincent Regan), who contemplates proposing the dissolution of the monarchy, much to the chagrin of his scheming wife (Elizabeth Hurley) and envious brother (Jake Maskall, channeling Emperor Palpatine), who would very much like to topple this house of cards.
But wait, as they say on latenight infomercials, there’s more! Liam has just begun romancing an America-raised commoner, Ophelia (Merritt Patterson). And before anyone can say “Cinderella,” the new king-to-be’s party-gal twin sister, Eleanor (Alexandra Park), not only feuds with mom but must grapple with being blackmailed for one of her many indiscretions.
Writer-director Mark Schwahn (who adapted this from a novel, “Falling for Hamlet”) deserves some credit for so eagerly piling on the cheese, from the Queen chiding her daughter for “behaving like a common whore” to later kissing her son and sneering, “I smell supermodel.”
Mostly, though, the fluctuations in tone are jarring, from wacky and screwball to earnest and warmhearted at the drop of a tiara. And while subsequent episodes keep spinning out new conflicts and crises, there’s going to have to be some generous grading on a curve to make this qualify as the guilty pleasure it’s clearly intended to become.
For all that, give E! credit for knowing its brand and finding a logical means of insinuating itself into the scripted arena (as Bravo recently did), with the British Royals being perhaps the second-most-potent force on Earth in terms of generating coverage from entities like US Weekly — right behind the aforementioned Kardashians.
The show also gets most of the shallow surface trappings right, from the cast to the handsome frocks. “Of course I’m ready,” Hurley tells an aide haughtily as the show opens. “I’m the Queen of England. When am I not ready?”
In terms of garnering attention, no argument here, Mum. As for being anything more than a commoner in the increasingly crowded world of scripted drama, well, let’s just say that smell isn’t supermodel.