Jenji Kohan is a creative force helping to define two of the best shows of the streaming era — “Orange Is the New Black,” which she created, and “GLOW,” on which she is an executive producer. “American Princess,” which she produces with creator Jamie Denbo, takes key elements of the Kohan playbook — a character placed in an unfamiliar community with its own distinct rules, a combination of utopian politics and disregard for cultural orthodoxy, a willingness to be gross and odd at times. Say this for Lifetime’s “American Princess,” then: Its failure makes clear what precise alchemy goes into making a show a success.
The pilot, for instance, is constructed with attention to story beats and to seeding conflicts, and paying them off with drama. Amanda Klein (Georgia Flood), a New York freelance writer, is gearing up for her gruesomely elaborate upstate wedding when she inadvertently discovers her soon-to-be-spouse bedding a sex worker. Soon enough, she’s split from him and gone AWOL, stumbling onto the campus of a non-stop Renaissance fair. But the show also makes it impossible to root for Amanda or even to be vaguely interested in what happens to her, so outright unpleasant company is she. The ambient sense that something is very off here, that the bones of a warm and charming comedy are being subsumed by a lack of writerly control, first really kicks in when Amanda inadvertently-ish attacks sex worker Helen (Erin Pineda). Her head smashes a table and spurts blood all over Amanda; we’re later informed that she’s bitten off and swallowed part of her tongue, and when Helen reappears, she speaks with a pronounced lisp.
This isn’t funny — nor is it funny when Amanda rips the nipple ring off her Ren-Faire love interest (Lucas Neff), leaving a bloody, gaping wound, or when Amanda sees the pubic hair of the Faire’s self-styled Queen (Seana Kofoed) and reports to her fellow performers about quite how unruly it is. The show uses bawdy body humor to express a fundamental disrespect for its characters, ripping them apart in hopes it can provide a moment’s amusement, even as the aftertaste is increasingly grotty. The gross-out comedy is a particularly poor brand fit for Lifetime — whose recent stabs at savvy, urbane satirical dramas, “Unreal” and “You,” both made more sense on their air and felt, from the beginning, far more fully formed.
The same sensibility applies to Amanda, who spews lines that seem from one angle relentlessly stupid and from another ingenious, designed as they are to represent her as someone who cannot back away from her own vanity and ignorance. When she says she should be able to master a task because she graduated summa cum laude from Vassar, she fails splashily seconds later, as though the director knew the punchline was too obvious to bother building tension. Asked to practice her curtsying to fulfill the duties of the Renaissance Faire she decided to join, Amanda replies “The only person I bow down to in real life is Beyoncé.” Confronted with a new style of parenting, she remarks, “I read about this in Vanity Fair, i think — or a BuzzFeed listicle.”
That’s clearly meant to elicit a laugh, even as it’s less than meaningless. Once Amanda’s friends (played diffidently by Mimi Gianopulos, Helen Madelyn Kim, and Tommy Dorfman) arrive on the scene, the game becomes clear; we’re meant to be rooting for Amanda to transcend a social milieu even more obnoxious than is she. (There are jokes about feeling triggered; someone says “hashtag-me-too” to agree with a statement.) But so much time has been spent with Amanda’s unhumble brags and her unceasing monologue that life at the Ren Faire has not been allowed to exist as anything but the alternative to the familiar. Why is this, precisely, where she should be and towards which she should aspire, just as elsewhere in the Kohan oeuvre Piper sheds her skin in prison and Ruth reinvents herself in a wrestling troupe? Here, the answer is “no reason, but keep watching.” Unfortunately for Lifetime, a network lately pushing to find a millennial audience but having trouble finding a hit, it’s hard to imagine who’d take that bet.
“American Princess.” Lifetime. June 2. Ten episodes (four screened for review).
Executive Producers: Jamie Denbo, Jenji Kohan, Tara Herrmann, Mark Burley.
Cast: Georgia Flood, Lucas Neff, Seana Kofoed, Rory O’Malley, Mary Hollis Inboden