‘Palm Royale’ Recap, Episodes 1-3: Palm Beach in 1969

Palm Royale

Pilot / Maxine Saves a Cat / Maxine’s Like a Dellacorte

Season 1

Episodes 1 – 3

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Apple TV+

Palm Royale on Apple TV+ is a colorful examination of the high society world of Palm Beach in 1969, telling the story of one woman’s desperate attempts to infiltrate and belong in the titular exclusive resort — making us wonder how far she’ll go to achieve this dream, and how far everybody else will go to stop her. The glitzy comedy is a Slim Aarons photograph come to life (wrong Palm technically, but close enough), filled with soapy plots that give its actors the chance to delightfully chew scenery. Kristen Wiig plays the relentlessly positive (or positively relentless) Maxine, who, despite being our main character, retains an air of mystery as the lines blur between her truth and the lies she’d tell to belong. Even when we discover that her seemingly tall tales (like being married to the heir to the illustrious Dellacorte family) are, in fact, true, even more questions arise — specifically about her motivation to join this world. Is it simply because she’s lonely, as she tells everyone from potential sponsors to the comatose Dellacorte matriarch she steals from? Or is it something more? And as she slowly makes progress infiltrating this world that she’s become obsessed with, how will her perception compare to the reality?     

Based on the book Mr. and Mrs. American Pie by Juliet McDaniel, the series also features an all-star ensemble cast, including Allison Janney, Leslie Bibb, Ricky Martin, Carol Burnett, and Laura Dern (who was originally intended to star as Maxine prior to scheduling conflicts). It’s like The White Lotus if every single cast member was the token gay icon. And similar to The White Lotus, there appears to be a dramatic incident that the story is building toward, vaguely teased as Maxine “snapping,” but tonally, the two shows are very different. Palm Royale finds a unique sweet spot between Big Little Lies and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar — not letting its mysterious aura get in the way of broader comedic swings and performances.

Take for example the slapstick shot of Maxine scaling the back wall of the resort right in the show’s opening moments — giving a literal representation to the separation between the haves and have-nots. She quickly makes herself comfortable in the world she’s determined to belong in, sitting solo at a poolside table and sipping a grasshopper across the way from a group of ladies who lunch, all of whom Maxine recognizes from the Palm Beach society pages (a.k.a. “The Shiny Sheet”).

As she listens to them lament the changing state of the world, Maxine awkwardly interjects her agreement from afar before walking over to join the conversation, despite the women’s disinterest. They aren’t quite as easy to infiltrate as a wall, and their ringleader, Evelyn (played by Allison Janney in a Regina George-like role), is icy enough to make Maxine return to her table. There, the resort’s staff confronts her for sneaking in and, despite her pleas, bans her from the resort. Maxine desperately wants to be a part of Palm Royale’s high society, but to gain access she needs to be sponsored by a member … and the only way for her to meet a member is to have access. It’s a Catch-22 that she’s determined to crack.

The show’s Phyllis Schlaffey-esque clique is counterbalanced by a feminist group led by a woman named Linda (Laura Dern), who Maxine bumps into on her way to get her nails done in the more common West Palm Beach. It’s there that she surprisingly spots one of the women from the Palm Royale, Dinah Donahue (Leslie Bibb), having what Maxine takes to be a lover’s quarrel on the street with one of the tennis pros. She sees this as an opportunity and springs into action to connect with the distraught Dinah, doing so by very strategically manufacturing a fender bender between them. Alexa, play “Mastermind” by Taylor Swift. Dinah insists on taking a bleeding Maxine to her physician, who then insists on examining Dinah as well — but she vehemently refuses.

She confides in Maxine that she’s pregnant from the affair she’s having with the tennis pro, and Maxine offers her advice and comfort, seemingly making phenomenal progress in her calculated, strategic attempt at forging a new friendship. Remembering her run-in with Linda, the feminist, Maxine realizes she can use that connection to solve Dinah’s problem, which buys her even more time in her good graces by arranging (and paying for) the abortion. Even so, when Maxine asks Dinah to sponsor her at the Palm Royale, she refuses. “Why do you want it so badly?” she asks, to which Maxine retorts, “Why do you?” The comeback is so quick that we, as the audience, barely have a chance to consider the first question ourselves. Is Maxine’s story about being painfully lonely and new in town the truth? Or is it what she thinks will work on Dinah? If it’s the latter, Maxine is sorely mistaken because Dinah makes it clear that she doesn’t believe the stories Maxine is weaving about her unseen pilot/Dellacorte’s husband and kicks her to the curb.

But with each setback Maxine faces in her quest into this elusive world, she finds a new opening. She might have been booted from Dinah’s good graces, but she left with information — which she takes to the dress shop, where she strategically alludes to Dinah being unwell to the right ears. It’s just enough gossip to get back to Dinah and serve as a warning. Fearful of how much Maxine spilled and to whom, a panicked Dinah shows up at Maxine’s motel in a fury. “Is any part of you real?” she asks, and right on cue, in walks Maxine’s pilot husband, who is, in fact, a Dellacorte — stunning Dinah, who in turn grants Maxine her elusive Palm Royale sponsorship.

Maxine is a grifter, but there’s just enough truth to her grift that the lines blur, which makes for a far more interesting dynamic than had she purely been a lying scam artist. She’s an unreliable narrator, but the reveal that she actually is, technically, a Dellacorte makes it harder to automatically dismiss her tall tales as deception. On the other hand, there are elements of Maxine that we can see with our own eyes as fraudulent, like stealing jewelry from the comatose Dellacorte matriarch to fund her mission to fit in. But her lonely, one-sided conversations with her add an interesting layer to her relationship with the unconscious Norma, who is ironically played by one of the most expressive actors of all time, Carol Burnett. It feels like Maxine’s there to have someone to talk to just as much as she’s there to rob, adding to the enigmatic aura that surrounds her.

The show’s rhythm sees Maxine’s victories quickly followed up with yet another setback for her to climb out of, and her entry into the Palm Royale is no exception. With the ink barely dry on her membership card, she’s cornered by Evelyn, who as a friend of Norma says that she knows all about how Maxine tricked Douglas into marrying her — and because of that she’ll never belong in their world.

Given this world’s (and, by proxy, Maxine’s) obsession with appearances and reputation, this gossip, which Evelyn wastes no time spreading around the resort, flusters Maxine as we head into the second episode. But is it true? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves anytime we find out new information about Maxine. In this case, I believe Maxine’s protests, not only because she maintains her innocence during a one-sided conversation with Norma where she has nothing to prove (which also ends up being a dream sequence, so make of that what you will), but also because she seems genuinely hurt by the content of accusation, more than the fact that people know about it.

Evelyn might be a tough nut to crack, but she’s the most important nut at the Palm Royale, so despite this low blow, Maxine is determined to win her over. While at Norma’s care facility, Maxine makes headway on that front, bumping into Linda, leaving the neighboring room, and discovering that she’s actually Evelyn’s stepdaughter. Yet again, she realizes that Linda can be an asset to her mission, this time helping her gather information on Evelyn. So off she goes to another feminist meeting, where she sticks out like a sore thumb.

These scenes give us a chance to see how Maxine behaves when she’s not walking a tight-rope to impress the women of the Palm Royale, and since she’s not in people-pleasing mode, she tries (and fails) to enlighten the group to the wonders of traditional gender roles. Interestingly enough, the way Maxine promotes this can, at times, contradict her actual actions. In reality, she doesn’t seem to be in service to her often-absent husband but rather intent on accomplishing her own goal, no matter his feelings. She even makes him go by Dellacorte rather than Simmons — which feels like a spin on a woman having to give up her name for her husband’s. Could Maxine’s relentless mission be positioning her to become an accidental feminist? We may ironically see Maxine take on the ideals being promoted by the feminists as a byproduct of her quest to join the world they vehemently stand against.

That contradiction and inability to figure out what exactly Maxine’s deal is is likely why they’ve entertained her antics thus far. Linda even asks her why she’s so determined to be somewhere she’s not wanted. “Isn’t that what makes a revolutionary?” she responds, but Linda, who clearly had a negative experience growing up in that world, bristles at the comparison. It’s worth noting that this is the second time that Maxine has brushed off that question by flipping it around on the person asking it. Is that because she’s hiding the real answer or because she just doesn’t have a good one?

After a flashy display at a charity auction, which does secure her a second sponsor but puts her in an even deeper financial hole, a demoralized Maxine once again bumps into Linda, who pities her enough to give her the final sponsor signature she needs — once a member, always a member, Linda says. Honestly, thank god Maxine keeps bumping into this lady everywhere. She’s officially cemented her place in the club, but at what cost? She’s out of money, can’t pay for her motel, and according to the houseboy at the Dellacorte mansion who’s allergic to shirts (Ricky Martin), Norma’s on the mend — meaning that inheritance won’t be coming to bail her out anytime soon.

But there’s a new gust in Maxine’s sails at the beginning of episode three, when she finds out that the auction made her the top story in that morning’s Shiny Sheet, which even floated the idea of her taking over hosting duties for Norma’s famous “Beach Ball” gala. Riding this newfound high like Florida’s Roxie Hart, Maxine strolls into the dress shop walking on air, where she finds the other women of the Palm Royale, to whom she announces that she will indeed be hosting the event. Eager to poke a hole in Maxine’s grandiose facade, the women encourage her to host them for a cocktail party that evening at her home — knowing full well that she was living in a motel. But Maxine doesn’t waver and agrees to have them … at the Dellacorte mansion.

It’s a lie that she has to quickly make a reality. The problem is that she isn’t the only one trying to squat in the mansion since Norma’s houseboy Robert has made himself at home there, too. You never want to find yourself in a squat-off with Ricky Martin. Both take advantage of the situation, and they ultimately call it a kind of truce in the sense that neither has any right to kick the other out. But Robert certainly isn’t going to help Maxine pull this party together, so instead she has a bright idea.

Remembering the impressive tablescape at Linda’s feminist group, Maxine returns, disrupting a conversation about Vietnam to ask for her help. Sidebar: Maxine’s main takeaway from the feminist group being the tablescape is incredible characterization work. “This definitely strains my idea of helping a sister in need,” Linda says, but nonetheless obliges, helping Maxine set up while also wanting to make sure she knows that the women are only coming because they want something from her. The Beach Ball is a huge moneymaker, and they want to inherit it. But when it comes to transactional relationships, Maxine isn’t solely a victim. After all, why does Linda think she’s there? Maxine wants something from her. She was using the women at the resort to gain entry, and now she’s using Linda to win them over.

But why is Linda, who can see Maxine being taken advantage of, allowing herself to be used too? Why is this bold feminist who fights against everything the Palm Royale stands for keep flirting with this world via Maxine? She hints at nostalgia, but we can see that there will be much more to unpack ahead when it comes to Linda’s story — which will likely come more into focus when we meet her ailing father, who will be played by Dern’s real-life father Bruce Dern, continuing the rich tradition of Laura Dern’s parents playing her characters’ parents.

As the women all arrive and put Maxine through her paces (while also swapping pills to take with their cocktails), we suddenly see a new side to Evelyn, who had previously been the coldest of them all. Just as Linda had foretold, Evelyn is showing some newfound kindness to Maxine, even offering to co-host the Beach Ball with her. But when the other women leave, Evelyn confronts Maxine about her ruse, asking if she really has any money at all. When she cites her incoming inheritance, Evelyn drops the bombshell that Norma isn’t leaving a cent to Douglas and Maxine and is instead donating her entire estate to the Palm Beach Feline Society. With this revelation, Evelyn thinks the Beach Ball is all hers, but Maxine knows that she can’t host it without access to the Dellacorte mansion, so she has no choice but to partner with her. Evelyn reluctantly agrees, so long as she can get her hands on Norma’s invaluable Rolodex.

Despite Maxine putting herself into deep financial ruin, money, luckily, isn’t the only valuable currency at the Palm Royale. As we’ve seen throughout this first batch of episodes, information, gossip, relationships, and access can be just as valuable — and in this case, can help keep you afloat when your head’s dangerously close to being underwater, which is great news for Maxine since she certainly can’t afford a trip to the hairdresser.

• Maxine’s one reliable confidant (apart from an unconscious Norma) is her nail technician Mitzi (Kaia Gerber), who, as a young aspiring model (wink, wink), mirrors Maxine’s own past as a rising pageant queen. It’s an archetype trailblazed by Pauline in Legally Blonde, of course, and by taking it on Gerber proves yet again that she has the best agent in Hollywood. First Bottoms, now Palm Royale … soon she’ll have her own float at Pride.

• Despite her character being in a coma, we fortunately still get to see Carol Burnett shine between dream sequences and flashbacks, including with lines like, “Shake me another martini and then let’s play doctor,” and telling Maxine that she doesn’t have enough “pizazz” to smother her with a pillow. Even when unconscious, Burnett is brilliant casting because the dynamic of her playing a revered legend that these women worship is already built in. It’s Carol!

• A noteworthy throughline is Maxine’s interest in Richard Nixon, whom she’s regularly watching speak on television and jumps at the chance to talk about when he comes up in conversation. It’s a fitting fixation for someone trying to convince everybody that she’s not a crook.

First appeared on www.vulture.com

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