OMG, the Prinsen är Queer
In Netflix’s Swedish boarding school drama “Young Royals,” the brooding young prince likes boys. Beyond the addicting central romance, there’s lots of class commentary to sink your teeth into, too.
The Swedish are good at a lot of things, and it turns out, teen angst is one of them. I came across the show “Young Royals” the old fashioned way: mindless late-night scrolling through Netflix’s endless offerings. After seeing it had an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and recalling the cult following of the early-aughts Nordic teen drama, “Skam,” I decided to give it a try. With its English title, I wasn’t expecting the show to be in Swedish, and after a brief hideous encounter with the dubbed version (never do this), I switched to Swedish audio with English subtitles. Within a few minutes, I was intrigued, and by the end of the first episode, I was hooked.
The show revolves around Wilhelm (Edvin Ryding), the younger prince of Sweden, who is forced to attend Hillerska boarding school after he gets into a public bar fight that becomes a PR disaster for the royal family. His older brother, Erik, is the perfect crown prince, while Wilhelm, the brooding, acne-stricken 16-year-old, would rather have nothing to do with the royal family or the public eye. Some of that might be related to the fact that he is queer, which we learn early in the first episode. At his welcoming ceremony to Hillerska, a breeding ground for Sweden’s most elite, he is serenaded by the school’s choir, and immediately smitten with the soloist, Simon, who looks and sounds like a beautiful Swedish Jonas brother. But, we learn quickly that Simon is off-limits for a future royal: not only is he a guy, but he is also a dreaded “day student,” meaning he’s on scholarship and is too poor to live on campus. He’s the son of a Swedish father, who he’s estranged from, and a Latin American mother, and speaks Spanish at home. (The actor who plays Simon, Omar Rudberg, is himself a Venezuelan immigrant to Sweden).
There is a good deal of representation in the show, in addition to the show’s central queer romance. Simon’s sister, Sara (Frida Argento), who also goes to Hillerska and responds to her mother’s Spanish only in Swedish, is neurodivergent, as is the actress who plays her, and the show doesn’t lean nearly as heavily on stereotypes as other shows representing autistic characters often do. One of the most popular girls at Hillerska, Felice (Nikita Uggla), who’s described as “basically royalty,” is one of the only people of color at school and midsize, and her story arc puts her far beyond the spoiled rich girl trope she at first appears to embody. And I’m not sure if this counts as representation, but the teenagers actually look like teenagers; this is the first teen drama I’ve ever seen where the characters have visible acne, even the cool attractive ones. Refreshing!
But what stood out to me most was the level of class commentary in the show. Sweden and other Nordic countries are of course held as paragons of social democracy, at least from the U.S. perspective, so I was a little surprised to see that class divisions seemed just as stark here as in a show like “Gossip Girl,” “90210,” “The O.C.,” or countless other American teen dramas. However, as in those shows, at Hillerska we’re only seeing the top echelon of wealth, so maybe it’s less shocking then that Sweden’s 1% might not support the country’s generous social welfare policies. As a day student, Simon is bullied and intimidated, particularly by August, Wilhelm’s social-climbing second cousin, and his gang of elitist assholes, simply for not being rich.
Simon is highly critical of the elite world that Hillerska–and someone like Wilhelm–represents, which Wilhelm clearly finds appealing. In the first episode alone, Simon stands up to two of his classmates who argue in a class discussion on the severity of different crimes that tax evasion is a less serious crime than welfare scam because tax evaders “create jobs” whereas as welfare recipients “contribute nothing to society.” Simon raises his hands and challenges: “Why is it called tax ‘evasion’ but welfare ‘scam’? It’s all right that rich people cheat, but when poor people do it, it’s messed up. For rich people it’s not even called ‘welfare,’ it’s called ‘deduction.’ … We all know who this country’s biggest welfare receivers are.” Applåder, Simon! While his classmates exchange nervous looks, Wilhelm tells Simon he agreed with his comments after class.
Wilhelm wants to distance himself from people like August and act like a normal kid, though he isn’t so aware of the privileges his position brings him that he’s always taken for granted, that someone like Simon can’t. In a later episode, for example, Simon learns that his classmates get better grades because they pay for private tutoring from their teacher. And a running theme throughout the show’s two six episode seasons is that the rich, well-connected students will get away with whatever trouble they get into, while for people like Simon, the consequences are more real. August (Malte Gårdinger), Wilhelm’s try-hard second cousin at Hillerska, is also a standout, impeccably-written villain, who, no matter how despicable he behaves, we also sympathize with, and at moments almost like.
“Young Royals” is wildly entertaining and addictive. It’s also fun to listen to Swedish, which in some places sounds almost like English: my brief research taught me that “goodnatt” means “goodnight” and “hej” (pronounced like a casual, airy, “hey”) means “hi,” which can sound kind of funny when said in formal settings. Not to mention the actual English words peppered into the Swedish dialogue like “cockblock,” “twink,” and “dick pic,” in a Nordic accent. And, I got to learn about some fun Swedish traditions involving Midsommar dresses and wig parties.
Though some reviews have compared “Young Royals” to recent shows about LGBTQ high school boys, like the heartwarming British web comic adaptation, “Heartstopper,” or the “Love, Simon” franchise, don’t expect cuddles and rainbows here. One Redditor said a parallel to “Call Me By Your Name” might be more apt, with its artsy cinematography, electro-ethereal score, and star-crossed secret romance. If there was a drinking game where you drank every time Simon and Wilhelm share a furtive glance, you would be blackout drunk in four-and-a-half minutes. Shit gets really, really dramatic. And you’re in luck, because the second season (which, admittedly, loses some steam), just came out this week. Get ready, because you’ll have trouble turning it off.
What I’m Watching: I really enjoyed “The Resort,” on Peacock, with William Jackson Harper (Chidi on “The Good Place”) and Cristin Milioti (the mother from “How I Met Your Mother”) as an unhappily married couple on vacation who stumble upon the unsolved deaths of two college kids at a Mexican resort that Milioti’s Emma decides to crack. The premise sounds like “The White Lotus” meets “Only Murders in the Building,” but there’s so much more going on in this twisty, complicated show created by Andy Siara, who wrote the time-bending Hulu movie “Palm Springs” with Milioti and Andy Samberg a few years back. Think magical realism, mythology, space-time continuum–plus a great cast including Nick Offerman, Ben Sinclair, Skyler Gisondo, and Luis Gerardo Méndez.