Royal Rumble: 7 Meghan and Harry Specials Face Off, and We All Lose

Posted May 15, 2018 4:26 p.m. EDT

After watching seven specials meant to illuminate and revel in the impending nuptials of Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle, I can offer a variety of knowledge and wisdom to those who seek it. For starters, avoid all of these shows. They are repetitive and absent of meaningful insight. I gleaned only one fact that had any emotional effect on me whatsoever: The flavor of the royal wedding cake will be lemon elderflower. Heartbreaking.

Kensington Palace actually tweeted this detail in March — it escaped my notice until I saw it in “Inside the Royal Wedding: Harry and Meghan,” debuting Wednesday on NBC. It is probably the classiest and most informative of the specials, but not all that classy or informative, strictly speaking. In a scene meant to convey insider bona fides, one of Markle’s friends, actress Janina Gavankar, holds up her phone to show off a selfie of the two of them. Except the Google URL is plainly visible; Gavankar has image-searched the photo that would ostensibly be on her own phone. This is the inside scoop? I have Google, too.

But still, it was more enlightening than “When Harry Met Meghan: A Royal Engagement” (TLC); “Meghan Markle: American Princess” (CBS); “Prince Harry’s Story: Four Royal Weddings” (NatGeo); “Meghan Markle: An American Princess” (Fox); “Harry and Meghan: A Very Modern Romance” (BBC America) and Lifetime’s fictionalized film version, “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance.” (These shows already debuted on television but are available to stream on network sites and elsewhere.)

The convergence of history, celebrity and glamour should be a fertile area for one-off TV specials, and there’s plenty of genuine information — about rituals, about rites, about politics, about tiaras, about dads — worth acknowledging or exploring. Also, come on: Weddings are fun! At times, these shows are giddy and fizzy and dorky, and I learned a few historical tidbits along the way. But the claims to personal intimacy ranged from visibly untrue to quietly sad, and the shows all used many of the same talking heads, the same clips and the same dumb, dubious claims (no, “Suits” is not a celebrity-making show).

A boring tabloid is a sin. Worse, the contrived narrative that the shows collectively push — the idea that Harry and Meghan’s romance is “a fairy tale” — is jarringly backward.

Fairy tales, as the controversial psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim explained in “The Uses of Enchantment,” are typically either stories about morality, like “Cinderella,” or amoral tales of aspiration, like “Jack and the Bean Stalk.” Markle hasn’t been so noble in the face of hardships that she’s a Cinderella, nor is she climbing, Jack-like, from lowly circumstances to riches and fame. She grew up comfortably in California. She was on “Nick News” as a child activist. She had a lifestyle blog (The Tig) and starred for seven seasons on a solid enough cable drama (“Suits”), which qualify as aspirational dreams for many.

Instead, it’s actually Harry whose life bears the trappings of a fairy tale: His mother dies when he’s a child, and he’s thrust into the cold and dangerous media woods, where vile forces seduce him into, say, smoking weed and, uh, once dressing up in a Nazi uniform. (This is mentioned, but not dwelled on, in most of the specials.) His return to righteousness, first through military service then through high-profile philanthropic endeavors, is rewarded with a loving romantic relationship. Unlike in a fairy tale, though, all that conflict has already occurred once Markle appears — her mere presence is the happily ever after.

Which is how a story as unusual as royalty marrying a biracial foreign commoner winds up feeling awfully dull. In an effort to juice things up a bit, Lifetime found its Prince Harry angrily defending his girlfriend’s now-shuttered blog. “It’s a community of inspiration!” he shouts.

The grandest gesture of chivalry and virtue is a harshly worded memo released by Kensington Palace in 2016 decrying “the wave of abuse and harassment” in the media and the internet at large that descended upon Markle. Yes, calling out racism and sexism is a major break in protocol, but dutiful fawning over a memo is not compelling television. Professional royal experts drawing comparisons between the constant coverage of Markle to the paparazzi hoards that surrounded Diana, Princess of Wales, come across as disquieting and a bit disingenuous — not because Markle hasn’t been hounded beyond all decency but because these shows themselves are part of the hounding. The frenzy is coming from inside the special!

This lack of self-awareness would be less galling if anything meaningful was being communicated, which it is not. “If the people do not feel that the monarchy is relevant, we will no longer have a monarchy,” according to “A Very Modern Romance.” (If only we’d known; colonialism could have been so different.) Diana’s death was, maybe, especially hard on Harry because he was going through “all kinds of hormonal changes,” according to “Four Royal Weddings.” A viscountess on “An American Princess” informs us that Markle may be unfamiliar with the ultra-fancy place settings at her wedding because “in America, we use one fork, and occasionally we use a knife, you know, when we gotta cut through a piece of meat.” This is true. Here in America we put butter on bread one stick at a time, and we cut our cakes with guns.

I cannot recommend any of these shows. I do, however, recommend the BBC interview that Harry and Markle actually sat for in November and, if that does not prove to be enough, the remarks from the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, and the interview with him, the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine, and Harry and Markle at the Royal Foundation reception in February. (Both are available on YouTube.)

These interviews are rather staid, but that’s the point: All this is rather staid, and the attempts to make it somehow livelier by having Gayle King sagely mention (in “Meghan Markle: American Princess”) that Shakespeare’s plays were performed a mere 22 miles from where Harry and Meghan will exchange their vows feel hopelessly irrelevant.

Royalty is built on the ability to perpetuate one’s own ongoing story. In matters like this, of so little consequence, let them have it.