How ‘Palm Royale’ Showrunner Abe Sylvia Made a ‘High Queer’ Political Apertif for Apple TV+

Welcome to It’s a Hit! In this series, IndieWire speaks to creators and showrunners behind a few of our favorite television programs about the moment they realized their show was breaking big.

Ten weeks deep and “Palm Royale” showrunner Abe Sylvia is still processing the success of his shimmering spring TV hit.

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“I certainly live in an echo chamber on social media, so I’m seeing lots of ways in which it infiltrated culture,” the executive producer (“George & Tammy,” “Dead to Me“) told IndieWire. “But I felt like we really crossed over when I saw that Ramona Singer from ‘Real Housewives’ was dressed for a ‘Palm Royale’-themed cocktail party. That’s when I went, ‘Uh-oh, something has changed here. Something has shifted.'”

The darkly comedic and suspenseful series from Apple TV+ — which wrapped its Season 1 order with a pitch-perfect finale on May 8 (“Is that… all there is?”) — stars Kristen Wiig as a wannabe Floridian socialite caught climbing the suburban party ladder in the summer of ’69. As the fearless and flamboyant Maxine Dellacorte-Simmons, Wiig appeared opposite a star-studded cast of veritable industry heroes, volleying acting talents with Carol Burnett, Ricky Martin, Laura Dern, and more.

“Everybody knew we were making something special that played by its own rules and could go anywhere at any time,” Sylvia said of his clubhouse crasher epic, citing classic soap operas, ’60s sitcoms, and the works of Pedro Almodóvar among other influences. “And we had this treasure box full of American acting icons and everybody got to do what they do best. We really wanted to show everybody off.”

The cast and crew of 'Palm Royale' (Top Row L-R) Ricky Martin, Katie O'Connell Marsh, Jayme Lemons, Josh Lucas, (Bottom Row L-R) Carole Burnett, Laura Dern, Abe Sylvia and Amber Chardae Robinson speak at the Apple TV+ presentations at the TCA Winter Press Tour held at The Langham, Huntington on February 5, 2024 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images)
(Top row, left to right): Ricky Martin, Katie O’Connell Marsh, Jayme Lemons, Josh Lucas; (Bottom row, left to right): Carol Burnett, Laura Dern, Abe Sylvia, and Amber Chardae RobinsonVariety via Getty Images

Even with an elite Hollywood pedigree baked into the “Palm Royale” production and cast (its March 14 premiere party in Los Angeles was packed with Bob Mackie in attendance), Sylvia was flattered when his show received weekly recaps in the actual “Shiny Sheet” of Palm Beach, Florida. Yes, the Palm Beach Daily News — a local newspaper championed by Mindy Cohn’s character Ann Holiday in the show — still exists today. Its reporters have been quietly following the fictionalized version of their publication since “Palm Royale” began on March 20 and, in fact, the close-knit coastal community has made something of a meta-celebration out of streaming new episodes. (Try their themed cocktail instructions!)

“There is a socialite down there who hosted a premiere party, and I think a finale party as well,” Sylvia told IndieWire. The “Palm Royale” showrunner didn’t name the mystery woman, but Google related events in Palm Beach and you’ll quickly find Ashley Lauren — AKA the “Palm Beach Fancy” blogger.

“[The parties were] unbeknownst to Apple, but you wouldn’t know they weren’t official because what she did was such a huge production,” Sylvia continued. “In some ways, she is the real Maxine and I’m really grateful to her for her gumption and what she’s pulling off.”

Leslie Bibb and Allison Janney in ‘Palm Royale’
Leslie Bibb and Allison Janney in ‘Palm Royale’

“Palm Royale” is only loosely based on author Juliet McDaniel’s 2018 novel “Mr. & Mrs. American Pie,” but is very much intended to honor — and gently rib — the real Florida town roughly 9,200 people call home throughout the year. The spirit and aesthetic of the series has reverberated across broader American culture these past two and a half months, appearing in everything from journalistic reflections on standouts scenes (long live Allison Janney and that beached whale) to fashion salutes honoring the luxury designers of last century.

There’s an unhinged Floridian spirit that defines Sylvia’s series and, through no fault of the trend-setting showrunner, that regional vibe has become close to omnipresent ahead of summer 2024. The song “Florida!!!” feat. Florence + The Machine continues to trend thanks to Taylor Swift’s “Tortured Poets Department” album. (“End credits for Season 2?” Sylvia joked.) Plus, it’s an election year and the Sunshine State almost always proves pivotal during those.

Asked to explain his approach to blending seriocomic tones, Sylvia said of the creamy perfection he achieved in “Palm Royale”: “True camp doesn’t really know what it’s doing; it just sort of exists. And we’re very intentional about what we’re doing.”

“Palm Royale” boasts the layered meticulousness of bespoke beadwork but rarely shies away from a deadpan joke. Embracing a “high-queer” aesthetic (bordering on “stoopid,” yes, that’s two o’s), Sylvia’s triumph in too-muchness is self-aware, smart, and adorned with countless artistic puzzles for keen viewers to solve. Take Maxine’s watery rescue by a hunky astronaut in Episode 9: a key moment in her character development that Sylvia says hinged on Wiig’s chemistry with her scene partner.

“That was fun because we cast Kristen’s husband, Avi Rothman, as the astronaut,” Sylvia said. “On a meta level, the astronaut’s coming down as this alternative to [Maxine’s primary love interest] Douglas (Josh Lucas). She suddenly has chemistry with this guy and it’s the first time her loyalty to Douglas has been truly tested by a worthy opponent. So it was lovely for Kristen to get to play those scenes with her real-life husband. It also meant they could really go for the kiss.”

Carol Burnett and Ricky Martin in ‘Palm Royale’
Carol Burnett and Ricky Martin in ‘Palm Royale’

Need another instance of carefully crafted, tongue-in-cheek storytelling? Consider the Episode 10 reveal that the fearsome and fabulous Norma Dellacorte, played by Burnett, is really a diabetic imposter named Agnes. The identity switch-up is a fun enough thematic twist on its own, but Sylvia imbued it with even more meaning for the legendary actress and her generations of fans. A seven-time Emmy winner, Burnett nearly saw her small screen career get off on the wrong foot before “The Carol Burnett Show” thanks to a different fictional Agnes.

“[Carol] told a story on set when she had first really reached acclaim on Broadway and television had come clamoring for her,” Sylvia said. “The first thing that was pitched was a sitcom called, ‘Here’s Agnes!’ And Carol didn’t want to do a sitcom and didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one thing. [Telling the story], she’s like, ‘Here’s Agnes! Here’s AGNES! Can you imagine?'”

Sylvia continued, “Then, she pitched her variety series and the rest is history. But she told that story and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to call her alter ego Agnes.’ Delivering that to Carol, she really got a kick out of that.”

Kristen Wiig in ‘Palm Royale’
Kristen Wiig in ‘Palm Royale’

Queer filmmakers have been “laundering pop culture through that sort of personal lens for years,” Sylvia explained. But “Palm Royale” required an especially delicate approach which the showrunner attributes to his team’s caliber of skill across departments and “lightness of touch and a delight to it” that helped make even the wildest swings feel seamless to the right audience.

“It’s not for everyone,” Sylvia cautioned. “But I think the people who get it really get it, and that makes me happy.”

That’s especially true of the show’s political messaging, which Sylvia said has been “glossed over a bit” in the critical reception. Comparing Agnes’ unmasking to Donald Trump’s ongoing legal troubles, the showrunner recalled learning about the raid on Mar-a-Lago while in the “Palm Royale” writers’ room debating if Agnes’ closet reveal would seem too far-fetched. And just recently, Sylvia heard “Palm Royale” come up on MSNBC with an anchor quoting the script in relation to Trump: “This is what’s to come in Palm Beach, the rise of the common criminal.”

“‘Palm Royale’ is not overtly political, but I think there’s a tension that comes from a little bit of subversion underneath all of the delight that I think is really buoying the show,” Sylvia said. “We set out to make a show that was open-hearted, that was not cynical at all, that seeks to entertain and delight as its highest purpose. But I think the political threads that we carry through will always be there, and the pure entertainment value will not ever suffer from it.”

Still, “Palm Royale” isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers. And with high hopes for a Season 2, Sylvia seems ready to fend for his chickens. “I hear some of the old guard is less happy with us,” the showrunner mused of his Floridian fanbase. “Call it an educated hunch. We deserve it. We deserve it from them.”

Palm Royale” Season 1 is streaming on Apple TV+.

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