The See-Through-Dress Incident
Sampling the investigative journalism inspired by Will and Kate's wedding.
Last night's edition of Dateline NBC swanned onto the tube bearing the title "Kate Middleton: Her Royal Journey" and proceeded to devote considerable semi-journalistic energies to telling the story of a young woman from the provinces who will be marrying into a "good" family this Friday. Here was Meredith Vieira on the banks of the Thames, threatening to make her network's weeklong march down the aisle feel like a monthlong trot through every princess fantasy Western culture has to offer. Meredith set up the class angle smoothly, identifying Kate as "a future queen whose family background matches most her subjects'." Here was correspondent Dennis Murphy, who has covered hurricanes, volcano eruptions, drug wars, real wars, terrorist attacks, and genocides but probably no other story that cried out to be scored to Coldplay's "Clocks," as this one ticklingly was. The mission: to outclass TLC's William & Kate: A Royal Love Story and all the other documentaries that have preceded it, wherein "royal experts" piece together a tale of young love and old social power with the restraint of Harlequin authors and the fervor of Kremlinologists. Dateline comes on at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, and before 7:03, we had heard no fewer than four times that Kate counts a coal miner among her forebears. Soon we saw Dennis crouched below the surface of the earth, with a hard hat and a local historian, who told us what it all meant. The tone of things was such that you might have supposed that the ancestor in question was, in fact, a Morlock. You can blame the producers and presenters for dallying in this stuff, if you like, but why bother? It's a lot more fun to blame the interviewees, Kate's "second cousin once-removed," for instance. "She's never met Kate, but …" But what's to stop her from fixing her blazing eyes at the camera in any case? Nothing, nothing but her own lust to contribute to the historical record. So it went, this jog through Kate's biography—the striving mum, the character-building stint in the Brownies, the fateful meeting with the young prince at college in Scotland. Setting aside the case of Tom Bradby—an ITV journalist whom Murphy interviewed about having interviewed the happy couple—the most interesting people to submit to direct questioning were the couple who run the convenience store in Kate's hometown of Bucklebury, England. They revealed that they have stowed their invitation to the royal wedding in a safe-deposit box and also, no less transfixingly, that the future queen's frozen treat of choice is mint Viennetta. CNN Presents also dwelt on Kate's humble origins last night, necessarily so. She is, after all, "a commoner destined to be a queen," as Soledad O'Brien intoned, in one of many resorts to talking about "fate" and such. But CNN's stab at treating the royal wedding as a Meaningful Story—as opposed to the highly entertaining meaning-free one that it is—arrived under the title "The Women Who Would Be Queen." It tasked Soledad O'Brien with teasing out psychodrama, talking over split screens, and drawing as many comparisons between William's mother and his bride as she could without actively rooting for a ghastly horror to befall the latter. At the opening, the camera found Soledad standing in front of Westminster Abbey, where the spectacle will materialize on Friday. "Ironically, it was this abbey where [William's] mother, Princess Diana, was laid to rest in 1997." This circumstance is, of course, ironic only in the Alanis Morissette sense, and it is surely a waste of keystrokes to raise a voice in protest against the continued degradation of the word, but some of us, glutting on pre-wedding programming, are feeling alert to the importance of tradition. CNN gave us some time with Di's nanny, a gloss of Will's psyche (seared by a "bitter divorce" and a "nasty custody battle"), and a capsule biography of the bride. A key text in Kate studies is the see-through dress she wore at an undergraduate fashion show. This garment, it is popularly supposed, was critical in forcing upon the young prince the knowledge that his platonic friend was an official hottie. Where other Will-and-Kate documentaries may have left viewers with the impression that Kate was brazenly skanking around on a catwalk, CNN Presents aired footage of a recent iteration of the event, thus demonstrating that the fashion show is a kind of lingerie pageant on the model of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, a saturnalia at which participants almost literally let it all hang out. The context was most welcome. At 9 p.m. it was time for another reairing of Lifetime's William and Kate, roundly and exuberantly derided as the total hack job that it is. But a mere tally of its moments of cheesiness would miss the point. Will and Kate are real people, probably, but to you and me they are vastly more significant as figures of myth, and Lifetime's number—an unthreatening rom com and borderline farce "inspired by true events"—has a kitsch purity that satisfies atavistic desires in a way that other efforts, being journalistically responsible or fundamentally competent or what have you, never could. We open with a cute-rate Charles dropping his boy off at college, casually chatting on a quiet walkway: "This is the kind of thing your mother would have wanted for you." The heir replies, puppyishly, "I'm really looking forward to it," cementing the idea that Lifetime's Will combines the bumbling charm of a Hugh Grant character, the shaggy charisma of a John Krasinksi knockoff, and the general mien of a slightly dim golden retriever. Soon Will edges into his dorm room with one bag slung over a shoulder and a single cardboard box in the crook of the royal arm, and you realize that, as a portrait of college life, the movie will make the CW's Hellcats, which is like the Flashdance of cheerleader shows, look like a triumph of verisimilitude. Here, the ups and downs and ins and outs of Will and Kate's off-and-on courtship exist on the same level as the commercial breaks, with their ads for online dating services and shampoo-conditioners, though with notably lower production values. One moment, the couple is sharing a first kiss in the driving rain. The next, they dryly run indoors to continue the moment. The dialogue is the stuff of your own young life. "I'm sorry," says Will. "I just need some space." And we just need some realm.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still form William & Kate © 2011 Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC. All rights reserved.