A key tenet of good drama is “show, don’t tell.” In this context, the miniseries The White Princess, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, which is currently playing on Starz and is the sequel to the popular The White Queen from a few seasons ago, is frustrating to watch, even though this historical schlockfest can be very entertaining.
The series kicks off with the bloody conclusion of the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) of York (a vibrant Jodie Comer and the “White Princess” of the title) has agreed to marry her family’s archenemy Henry Tudor (a whiny Jacob Collins-Levy) after the latter slays her lover and uncle Richard III (the basis for Shakespeare’s hunchbacked monarch) and seizes control of the crown. The union is meant to signify peace between the two warring houses, the Yorks and the Lancasters. Unfortunately, the two scions roundly despise each other. In fact, before they wed, Henry rapes Lizzie to impregnate her with his child — an opportunistic move he sees as necessary to fortify his already tenuous claim to the throne.
The costumes look like rejects from the local Renaissance festival
Disgusted and full of hate (can you blame her?), Lizzie greets her imminent marriage to Henry with the joy and panache of someone being sent to the gallows. It’s a walking nightmare for her, becoming even more so when Lizzie realizes she’s indeed knocked up, a condition that elicits shouts of euphoria from both Henry and his tarantula mom Margaret Beaufort (a woefully misused Michelle Fairley). That’s basically the gist of episode one. A few episodes later, in true contrived soap opera fashion, the two former adversaries have fallen madly in love, yet we do not see the relationship evolve to this point.
The superficiality is a byproduct of the genre’s tropes that infest the series. What seems paramount in The White Princess is not the psychological development of each character arc, but rather that the plot races toward its next beat, and the beat after that, no matter how ridiculous or irrational. With such glib storytelling, nuance is sacrificed in favor of one-dimensional writing. Instead of complicated, multifaceted beings, each character is reduced to cartoonish representations of simplistic, “good and evil” archetypes to accommodate the time-limiting framework of an eight-episode narrative.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than the ludicrous scene in which Lizzie gives birth to her and Henry’s first son, Arthur. As she writhes in the throes of childbirth, Lizzie is subjected to a cringe-inducing harangue from Margaret, in full evangelical fervor, about how her daughter-in-law ought to be honored for fulfilling her divine duty.
It saddens me that Fairley, who was so wonderful and luminous as the doomed noble matriarch Catelyn Stark on HBO’s fantasy blockbuster series Game of Thrones should be saddled with such a thankless role. Whether blubbering over some self-flagellating sin or (spoiler alert) suffocating Henry’s ailing uncle Jasper (a dignified Vincent Regan) in order to stop him from revealing a dark secret, Fairley works hard but is hampered by writing that insists on portraying Margaret as a fanatical she-devil.
And it doesn’t help that The White Princess reeks of cheapness. The costumes look like rejects from the local Renaissance festival and Henry and Lizzie’s crowns resemble the cardboard tiaras giveaways at Burger King that customers get in exchange for double orders of cheeseburgers and fries.
David Lynch’s reboot of “Twin Peaks” is ill-conceived.
For those familiar with Gregory’s historical potboilers mostly focused on the Tudor period, you know she takes (cough) creative liberties with the truth — I’m pretty sure Jasper Tudor didn’t die the way it’s depicted in the The White Princess and, even though it has never been proven what exactly happened to the Princes in the Tower, Margaret likely did not play a role in their disappearance. Also, Perkin Warbeck (a ruddy Patrick Gibson), a pretender to the throne, is written and portrayed as someone who might be telling the truth, although historians pretty much agree he was a fraud. If you’re an historian who demands that shows like these skew closely to accuracy, you will go apoplectic. To enjoy this series, it’s highly recommended that you suspend all brain activity and watch as if you were lobotomized.
At least The White Princess has a straight through-line, unlike the reboot of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s ill-conceived attempt at reviving his quirky old ABC series from the early 1990s. Where the original incarnation began to run out of steam after it solved the mystery of who killed teen prom queen Laura Palmer, this new version, which is running for 18 episodes on Showtime, is already a disaster by episode four. There is no story here, only incoherence and a succession of confusing, nonsensical imagery masquerading as deep metaphors for the cool crowd.
The show is so bad that I actually feel sorry and embarrassed for all of the actors. It’s a real shame the reboot is a turgid mess considering Lynch’s idiosyncratic vision and talent can be very compelling — when he’s forced to tell a story, that is. Showtime clearly gave the auteur free rein unlike network TV and we, as viewers, suffer greatly for it. Pity.