The CW’s Reign is awful, but not for the reasons you might think.
I admit I’ve got a bit of a confirmation bias going here. I tuned in fully expecting it to suck, and I was not disappointed. If anything, it surpassed my expectations of suckhood. Considering how low those expectations were, that’s really something.
I poked around online for reviews, and it seems most of them are positive, with the warning that “history buffs should stay away.”
You don’t say! I thought all history buffs would turn to the CW for a totally accurate and educational broadcast!
I honestly don’t know which is more offensive to my intelligence: the show itself, or the notion that its biggest problem is historical accuracy (or lack thereof).
I am a bit of a history buff myself. I once read an entire medieval history book for fun. I know, I know, how Hermione of me. That being said, I also understand the difference between a documentary and a costume drama. When you’re talking about the latter, historical accuracy tends to fall at a lower priority than entertainment value, budget, and convenience. I get that. Those are practical concerns for a TV show. I also believe that history buffs who complain about every minor detail in a costume drama are only doing it because they can, not because they actually expect historical accuracy. It’s like expecting great character development and witty dialogue on a CW show.
However, there’s still a limit to just how fast and loose a show can play with historical accuracy and still expect audiences to suspend their disbelief. Sometimes, anachronism can be an affective narrative or stylistic device—see Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or most of Baz Luhrmann’s ouevre—but that is clearly not the case here. Reign takes itself entirely too seriously for that. One of its stars, Anna Popplewell, described the show as “historical fan fiction.” In keeping with this analogy, Reign is not one of those well-written, well-constructed fan fiction stories that are sometimes even more fun than the canon. Rather, it’s one of those sparklypoo Mary Sue stories with random pop music lyrics tossed in along with intrusive shout-outs to the writer’s best friends.
Loosely inspired by the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (and when I say “loosely,” I mean “some of the characters have the same names”), the show is set during Mary’s teenage years. The writers had a boatload of material to work with here—as one of the most tragic and fascinating historical figures of her time, Mary led a life full of drama and intrigue. Watching her navigate the intricacies of ruling a country (theoretically) along with the ups and downs of adolescence makes for potentially compelling drama, right?
Surely you jest! Why use that great premise when you go for manufactured teen angst instead? Political intrigue serves as merely a backdrop for episodes that feel like rejected Gossip Girl scripts with period details thrown in, along with some The Vampire Diaries for good measure. With their disconcertingly modern sensibilities, behaviors, and speech, the characters never feel authentic; you’re constantly aware that they’re 21st-century twenty-somethings-playing-teens in period clothing. And speaking of period clothing, well, let’s just say it becomes glaringly obvious when the budget ran out and the stylists were forced to bust out the clearance prom dresses.
Mary’s friends (presumably based on the “four Marys” who accompanied the real Mary at court) are the medieval Plastics, complete with hipster hairstyles and names more reminiscent of suburban American teens than Scottish ladies (Aylee, Greer, Kenna, and Lola).
They giggle over first kisses and sex talk with the frankness of contemporary American teens who’ve watched one too many episodes of Sex and the City. Reign apparently made waves for a masturbation scene that was toned down before it was aired, because a devoutly Catholic teenage girl is totally comfortable doing this in a hallway where she is caught by the king, who is so turned on he actually becomes enamored of her.
Catherine de Medici’s sole purpose in this narrative is to be the disapproving potential stepmother who makes life difficult for our beleaguered heroine. Mary’s betrothed, Francis, was aged up and given a fictional half brother (whose nickname, “Bash,” is lifted right off the pages of an 80s young adult novel) for the sake of creating a Vampire Diaries-esque love triangle. Considering that the actors look like low-rent knockoffs of Merlin’s Bradley James and TVD’s Ian Somerhalder, it’s plain to see what kind of dynamic we’re to expect here. Look, TV writers. I don’t know why all y’all labor under this belief that love triangles are viewer catnip and we just can’t get enough even when it’s painfully obvious which couple is endgame (particularly since the writers told us Mary would indeed marry Francis, as she did in history). Audiences are (usually) not as stupid as you seem to think and can see right through this ploy. Yet y’all still keep pushing these tedious, predictable love triangles with the same tired good-guy/bad-boy clichés that come as a surprise to absolutely no one.
Pretty much every young male aristocrat who passes through Mary’s court is played by a the same mold of bland, moderately attractive young actor sporting some manly stubble and a costume on loan from Medieval Times. In episode 3, the prince of Portugal jockeys with Francis for Mary’s hand in marriage while one of her friends, supposedly from a family of commoners (yes, I know), is also sweating him. The friend and Mary clash because apparently sis code comes second to, you know, trying to rule one’s country (Portuguese prince promised Mary military aid if she were to marry him). Said friend ends up hooking up with a kitchen servant that she flirts with throughout the episode, anyway, while Francis advises Mary to go to Portuguese prince with the same manner of angst one would employ when turning down a prom date.
Need I say more?
In terms of personality and character development, Mary’s friends are basically interchangeable—I had to look up the cast on imdb to get their names straight. Mary herself is blah and basic, seeming more interested in pursuing Francis than actually doing her job. In the above mentioned episode, her dilemma comes off as less about the potential ramifications of breaking a politically-motivated engagement she’s been locked into since childhood, and more about which be-stubbled boy toy makes her heart go pitter-pat more. The adult characters are equally dull and one-dimensional. To add to the plot clutter, there’s a supernatural element—a ghost that apparently haunts the castle and gives Mary advice—which makes a brief appearance the pilot and is promptly dropped.
Reign doesn’t even qualify as a fun turn-off-your-brain show. It’s not so bad it’s good. It’s so bad it’s just… really bad. I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone unless they’re like me, and seem to enjoy self-flagellation. If you aren’t among that group, however, heed my warning. It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict how this show will end: