While I enjoy “high-brow” entertainment and aim to surround myself with the best in the arts as often as possible, there’s a perverse pleasure in enjoying a work of media that revels in how ridiculously bad it is. Reign, which is in its first season, is such a guilty pleasure. The show airs on the CW on Thursdays at 9/8 central.
Reign ostensibly chronicles the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, at the French court before she married Francis, uniting Scotland and France. What this show actually does is combine the soapy romantic and sexual drama of Gossip Girl with its pseudo-historical context, throwing in elements of horror and mystery and mixing in a heaping serving of political intrigue.
After surviving a poisoning attempt at the convent where she has grown up, Mary (Adelaide Kane) is forced to seek refuge in the French Court with King Henry (Alan van Sprang), Queen Catherine de’ Medici (wonderfully played by Megan Follows, with more skill and adroitness than this show frankly deserves), her fiance, Prince Francis (Toby Regbo), to whom she was betrothed at age seven, and the King’s bastard son, the (fictional, it must be noted) ill-reputed Sebastian (Torrance Coombs).
Along for the ride are four of Mary’s childhood friends, who are either minor nobility or extremely wealthy; they have come the French court not only to wait on Mary, but also to find rich, titled husbands and secure their futures. Also thrown into the fray are the Queen’s psychic/seer Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland) and a mysterious girl who lives within the walls of the castle.
The plot is quickly set in motion as soon as Mary and her entourage arrive. While Mary and Francis have been promised to one another for years, Francis is unsure of whether their union is still politically feasible. Upon seeing Mary for the first time, Nostradamus has a vision that Mary will cause Francis’ death, which alarms and frightens Catherine and sets her on a path to ruin or kill Mary, however possible, in order to spare her son.
The pilot disappointed me —and almost made me stop watching— with its cheap use of attempted sexual assault as a plot point. In the pilot, Mary’s lady-in-waiting Lola (Anna Popplewell)’s country beau comes to court from Scotland to marry her. Soon enough, he is forced by outside powers to try to “destroy Mary’s virtue” while she sleeps, thus rendering her unable to marry Francis. However, Mary heeds the mysterious castle girl’s warning not to drink the drugged wine, and is thus able to fight him off and cry for help.
While this element of the plot serves to show just how far Catherine will go in order to get rid of Mary, and to establish just how much danger Mary is in at the French court, it seems completely mishandled. In subsequent episodes, Mary’s attempted rape is not dealt with; she apparently suffers little to no emotional fallout from this traumatic event.
Despite the pilot’s disappointments, there are many elements of the show that seem promising. As the story progresses over the subsequent episodes, it’s evident that the show is going for full-on ludicrousness. From the uniformly English accents of the entire cast (including the French and Scots) to the obligatory love triangle among Mary, Francis, and Sebastian, to the lovely, if totally inaccurate, wardrobe and hair choices (I doubt that many girls in 1500s France had access to modern-day hair flat-ironing techniques) and its completely anachronistic soundtrack, every aspect of this show is designed to entertain in the most consciously, guiltily addictive way possible. Kisses are exchanged furtively in staircases, looks linger longer than they ought, and in one particularly silly scene, Mary and her friends spy on the consummation of Francis’ sister Elizabeth’s marriage, embarrassed and titillated in equal measure.
The commitment to camp is not always a bad thing. Follows is probably the best part of this show. Every line is delivered appropriately for whatever mood she is trying to evoke; she sells Catherine as both an imperious schemer and a loving mother who just wants the best for her son.
Kane’s Mary also is a high point of the show. She proves a steely and believable young queen over the course of the show. The majority of the show sees Mary grappling with her feelings towards Francis, her duty to her country, and her attempts at surviving Catherine’s nefarious plots. Kane brings a degree of emotional depth and agency to the role of a young woman thrust into an untenable position. Additionally, Regbo’s Francis is charming and cold in equal measure, and manages to convey the mixed feelings of duty and love with sensitivity.
Aside from the portrayals of Catherine and Mary, two strong women at odds with one another, the acting is not quite as strong throughout. Coombs is less adept than Regbo at creating chemistry with Mary; the Sebastian-Mary portion of the love triangle does not feel organic or particularly charged. He is also just not that interesting of a character, but this issue may be more due to the writing than to the acting.
As for Mary’s entourage–each girl has a few defining moments throughout the progression of the show, yet for the most part, they are unmemorable. Celia Sinden’s Greer, the only lady-in-waiting who does not come from royalty, is given a romance with a kitchen boy in later episodes that is sweetly done. It serves to draw attention to the struggle Greer faces between her duty to marry a titled man and following her heart.
Kenna (Caitlin Stasey) catches the King’s eye, and much of her subplots revolve around her attempts to become his new mistress. Lola, after the pilot, and Aylee (Jenessa Grant) are not given much to do at all; Aylee is an especially flat character with little motivation or development. Additionally, the affair between Kenna and the King is rather creepy due to the inherent power imbalance in their relationship, not to mention the gaping age difference.
Despite its weaknesses, the show soon learns how to juggle its various genres (some more successfully than others). The political tensions provide some of the strongest moments of the show, while I could probably do without the constant reminders of spooky Pagans running around sacrificing people.
Ultimately, Reign is Mary’s story, and luckily, she is strongly written and portrayed. For people who just want to enjoy (in the loosest sense of the word) a television program with pretty people plotting and smoldering in exquisite clothes and who don’t mind how it ignores historical events, Reign is a good bet for being entertained.
Correction, 3/8/14: The century during which Reign occurs was originally misstated.