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We’re in a Golden Age of Television Camp

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We’re in a Golden Age of Television Camp

The more you watch of Palm Royale—the new Apple TV+ show starring Kristen Wiig as a wannabe socialite trying to make it into the upper crust of 1969 Palm Beach, Florida—the more it may feel as if a microdose of LSD is starting to kick in.

Though Wiig’s sunny caricature of a Southern accent won me over from the pilot, I knew I was onto something special when, midway through the miniseries, Allison Janney’s queen bee falls in love with a beached whale while a handsome man soon falls, quite literally, from outer space. In what other show, pray tell, would we get to hear Wiig utter the magnificent lines “Take me right here on this ethnic rug. Go get your trumpet. I want you to play ‘Edelweiss’ in me real slow”? That’s right. I’ll wait.

Thanks to a sense of self-awareness and a commitment to not taking itself too seriously, Palm Royaleis a fast, fun, and occasionally quite funny series that charts the efforts of Maxine (a brilliant Wiig, whose ditzy charm has rarely been better deployed) to break into high society at the eponymous Palm Royale beach club. Her chief rival is Evelyn (Janney), who is perpetually dressed in a series of stunning silk caftans while she sits atop the social milieu in the absence of Maxine’s ailing aunt-in-law Norma (comedy icon Carol Burnett, who proves she can still make us laugh with very few lines of discernible dialogue). The show begins to feel overstuffed in its later episodes, as Maxine and husband, Douglas (Josh Lucas), scramble to keep afloat in their new world, but it’s never boring.

In fact, Palm Royale shares a lot of its DNA with a certain other period series starring an ensemble of fabulous middle-aged women. I am talking, of course, about HBO’s The Gilded Age, albeit imbued with the pleasant lightheadedness of having downed a few poolside mai tais. Indeed, it seems that camp is having a moment on television: With the recent release of buzzy, star-studded shows like Palm Royale, FX’s Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, and the latest season of The Gilded Age, we are positively drowning in shows about the glitzy world of the well-to-do that I can only—facetiously, of course—describe as being catnip for a gay man with a streaming subscription.

There are obvious similarities between the three series. The Gilded Age follows the battle between new money and old in 1880s New York, while this latest addition to the Feudanthology is based on the fallout between writer Truman Capote and his bevy of wealthy female friends following his lampooning them in a gossipy 1975 essay. In all these shows, we follow groups of elite, wealthy, and catty women who are fighting to maintain their grip on social power to the exclusion of all others. In all these shows, the extravagances and intricacies of this moneyed class are both venerated and vilified. And in all these shows, the wardrobe budget is the real star.

But the similarities go beyond the surface, touching on a slippery sensibility that has been famously defined by Susan Sontag in her landmark 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’ ” First, Palm Royaleand its ilk revel in the artifice, theatricality, and visual glamor of the rich worlds they inhabit—what Sontag referred to as “the spirit of extravagance.” That glamor is on display not only in the subjects’ lives and storylines but also in the style through which they are depicted on screen. There is nothing natural about the homes in which these wealthy characters reside, whether they be seaside belle epoque estates in Rhode Island decked out with murals of the sky, or warm Mediterranean Revival palazzos that are drowning in stuffed birds and fern wallpaper.

When we watch these shows, we’re tuning in as much for the over-the-top costumes and production design as for the plot. It’s what Sontag would call our “visual reward”—and boy are we rewarded. Indeed, the costumes in this season of Feud were so sumptuously camp that they were even highlighted in a New York Times style piece detailing how the show depicted Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball and how designer Zac Posen re-created some of the gowns for New York’s high society ladies.

The very fact of the Times’ interest in a show like Feud (the brainchild of Ryan Murphy, the current king of TV melodrama, who prefers the word baroque over camp to describe his work) points to another element of camp in these series’ appeal: a unique blend of high-low culture. Contrast the chatter surrounding these shows with the reception of the long-running soap operas about the wealthy that were synonymous with the ’80s and ’90s, from Dynastyto The Young and the Restlessto The Bold and the Beautiful. Those soaps were typically viewed as trash popular television, but this current slate of shows, while equally lavish, entertaining, and catty, are framed as prestige productions with big stars and bigger budgets. They take viewers into a high-culture world of exclusive balls, pricey art auctions, and martini luncheons, but through the historically low-culture medium of television. The stakes—box seats at the opera, beach club membership—are deadly serious for the characters, even as they are remarkably silly for us viewers. To cite Sontag, these shows are “serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”

However, there are different planes to camp. Sontag distinguished between “pure” or “naive” camp and “deliberate” camp, observing, “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.” Feudand Palm Royalefall more within the “deliberate” category, possessing some measure of fun and self-awareness (even if Murphy’s series does wallow in Capote’s addiction problems somewhat movingly, thanks mainly to a brilliant, preening performance by Tom Hollander). The Gilded Age, by contrast, must fall under peak camp by virtue of taking itself seriously. Although HBO’s period drama imagined itself to be sumptuous, important television, it failed spectacularly, particularly in its bloated, boring first season. But it was that failure—“the sensibility of failed seriousness,” per Sontag, in a production that had the “proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive”—that also made it so wonderfully camp. In short, the perfect series for a large swath of cynical viewers who happily called it “the worst show on television,” while still tuning in every week, addicted to hating it as much as they loved it.

There are plenty of other TV shows about the world of the wealthy and those trying to infiltrate it, but they don’t quite rest on the “innocence” that Sontag ascribed to camp. Netflix’s Ripley—the upcoming black-and-white adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley,starring Andrew Scott—is too dogged and dour; HBO’s Succession, while at times sardonic, had a jagged edge of seriousness; The White Lotus, although funny, was too consciously satirical to be camp. (I would argue, however, that Jennifer Coolidge’s award-winning turn as Tanya in both the first and second seasons was camp at its finest.)

There’s an ineffability to campiness, a special quality that you know when you see it. The best camp, just like the grasshopper cocktail that Wiig’s character sips throughout Palm Royale, may seem like a ridiculous order, but it goes down easy with just the right balance of alcohol and sugar. Just kick back, relax, and let the booze settle in.

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