Why You Shouldn't Bother Watching "Sisi", the New TV Series By RTL

Hi there! I watched a series today that was so bad it made be write the first blog post in one and a half years. Will I write more again in the future? I don't know, I guess we'll see. In the meantime, follow all my latest castle adventures over on Instagram. See you there!

Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the immortal Sisi, has inspired the imagination of the people for more than a century now. Her life, her love, her tragedies, her death. Adored, free spirited and one of the original royal IT girls. A face that could launch a thousands ships, well, bring peace to two feuding nations by simply being her charming self. A woman that, 120 years after her death, can still draw crowds and be the foundation stone of what seems like half the tourist industry of several regions. (Okay, that might have been slightly exaggerated but have you ever been to Vienna and seen the souvenir shops?) So it's not too surprising that time and time again, cinema and TV productions have tried to capture the spirit of one of the most interesting female characters in history. The latest such attempt was made by German TV channel RTL with their series "Sisi", which is available for streaming now and will be shown on TV for Christmas.

If you think that the fact that the series is titled the way Elisabeth's nickname was actually spelled - in difference to the 1950's invention "Sissi" for the film trilogy with Romy Schneider - is an indication that it is any closer to the historical truth, you are, however, dead wrong. It's a lot darker, way less romantic - but any closer to the actual story? Sadly, no. Truth be told, I would love to see a good and honest depiction of Elisabeth's life, the woman behind the icon and the kitsch. She was complex, she was complicated. But unfortunately, the series doesn't capture any of it. Ridiculous storylines, annoying characters with zero depths, sort of cheesy (but not in the good way), cringe and boring were some of my thoughts while watching the first episode. Unfortunately, I didn't get any better from there. (I actually meant to quit the show about halfway through episode three but it was like an accident I couldn't look away from on so many levels.) 

Let's start with the easy one and a pet peeve of mine: If I had gotten out my imaginary period drama bullshit bingo, I think I would have ticked off all the boxes within the first 20 minutes of the first episode. Wrong titles, check. Wrong styles, check. Wrong forms of address, check. Wrong depictions of the workings of a royal court, check. (Yeah, maids wouldn't have been seen dead cleaning a room while the Empress is in it, you know.) I also didn't quite understand why they changed the names of the Austro-Hungarian-Bohemian nobles save for a few (like Esterházy) and sometimes used names of other German (minor) noble families but with added or wrong titles (Herzog Wittgenstein or Graf Bodelschwingh). From Radetzky to Liechtenstein and Lobkowicz to Metternich - the nobility of the Habsburg empire has some of the most easily recognisable names even for people who are not well-versed in its history. Research matters. The way the people behave and act and talk - no one would have dared behaving and acting and talking like that in court. When you get such basics wrong or decide to ignore them, how is the viewer supposed to take the rest seriously?

Don't get me wrong, the series did touch on a couple of interesting points. For example, Emperor Franz Joseph - who we often remember as the old man with the the dense side-whiskers who by simply being alive kept the Habsburg empire from falling apart - didn't always make the wisest decisions - a.k.a. plain bad ones - in his younger years leading to war and the suffering of his people. Another one was the role of wives and daughters of the Emperor, how they mattered a lot less than their male counterparts. However, there were several made up plot lines without any historic basis that were more than ridiculous and overshadowed any good intention there might have been.

For starters, did you know that Franz-Joseph and Elisabeth basically fell in love while almost single-handedly fighting off Hungarian rebels outnumbering them about three or four times in the woods near Bad Ischl? (Attention, irony ahead.) I mean, don't we all know how the Salzkammergut was a hotbed of Hungarian revolutionaries in 1853? (Irony off.) It's just one of the many examples were the series doesn't just take historical liberties and artistic license - something I'm not usually too concerned with - but actually wanders off into a totally made up historic parallel universe. 

Need other examples? After Elisabeth, at the time just his fiancée, finds out that Franz Joseph has visited a brothel in Starnberg, she walks straight into the brothel and requests talking to the prostitute. The next day she comes back, recruits the prostitute her future husband slept with, gives her a make-over and makes her her lady-in-waiting as a fake countess. Totally believable for an incredibly sheltered, naive and very Catholic princess at the tender age of 15 in the middle of the 19th century, right? As you can probably guess by those sentences, sex sells seems to be one of the main aims of this series, so we probably see Franz Joseph without a shirt on more than actually working behind his desk. The story about the the prostitute-turned-lady-in-waiting doesn't end there though, but how Elisabeth has her arrested for having a relationship with the Hungarian rebel who tries to kill the Emperor not once but twice after a Lesbian make-out session is a story for another day. As are how Elisabeth goes into labour while basically crowdsurfing in front of the Hofburg in Vienna, her travelling in a tiara from Bavaria to Vienna only for it to fall off when the exits the carriage and several other storylines more or less silly than that. 

Elisabeth was a lot of things, perhaps more than any fictional portrayal could ever capture - but she was few things the "Sisi" series makes her out to be. She was strong-willed, she was free-spirited, even a rebel in her own way - but she wasn't a political mastermind basically ruling the country in place of a husband who didn't know his way around politics, as this series tries to paint her towards its end as the consequence of the death of her first daughter. But I guess in a way that reflects the current Zeitgeist in the same way as the "Sissi" trilogy did during the 1950's with its overly romantic view of the Empress' life. Probably all of that wouldn't be so bad and a lot more enjoyable as pure entertainment if the marketing machine for the new series wouldn't have made it out to be a historically a lot more accurate portrayal of the life and times of Elisabeth than ever before. From the costumes to the story-telling, it's more "Reign" than "The Queen". For the first half of the six episodes, it was even hard to make out what kind of story they wanted to tell. Few of the main characters' motivations become clear and even when there is development, you are not quite sure where that came from especially during the early episodes. While it gets better towards the end, don't count on me to watch the second season that's already been commissioned. 

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