“Reign” Is Not the Best Show on TV, but It May Be the Greatest

junio 16, 2017 at 11:44 pm (Television) (, , , , , , , , )

If there is one thing that consistently disappoints me about the CW’s super-hero fare, it is its inability to harness the genre’s capacity for soapy DRAMA.  Set in worlds where aliens are real and there exist people in possession of powers that turn them into gods, it somehow often manages to fall flat.  Perhaps it has something to do with a lack of commitment: a world with superheroes should be drastically different from our own, and yet showing us what that world would actually look like is a step the genre rarely takes, with its most famous creations. Due to their existence as both CW shows and super-hero shows, there’s a certain baseline for its characters and stories, which often leads them to believe that fighting equals drama.

A lack of DRAMA has never been Reign’s problem. Developed by Laurie McCarthy and Stephanie SenGupta (although the latter left early in production, leaving McCarthy as showrunner) The CW’s exploration of the life of Mary Stuart left no stone unturned in its search for plot, using every tool available in order to spice up the lives of their characters. Some of it is taken from real-life history and the tumultuous reigns of its characters.  Some of it is taken from ye olde book of period dramas—lots of political marriages up in here, even for characters who did not exist in actual history. A lot of it just soap opera, with a 16th century bent: somebody being a secret protestant is a plot twist here, which is just fantastic.  Reign, in general, is a lot, which gives it a lot of the appeal of a good Pretty Little Liars episode or one of the better Lifetime movies, where you’re left wondering just how it is the characters arrived at this point.

It turns out that life at court is unpredictable, which is also perhaps the single word that best describes Reign. Thanks to a rather delightful lack of concern for consistency, the world of Reign is one where almost anything can happen, and where plots can turn on a dime.  Life in court is one of plagues, poison, pirates, hallucinations, poison, DEATH HORSES, marriages to pepper merchants, widowhood, vacillating between which child of  yours you’ll have to kill, creating emotional bonds with your enemies, torture, fucking people to death, having sex with ghosts, tennis, secret Protestantism, witchcraft, death by hair accessories, surprise prostitution, false identities, syphilis, jousts, treacherous servants, castration, supernatural detective work, blackmail, regicide, sex, attempted polyamory, sex journals, sexy bathing, treacherous clergy, prophecy, witches for hire, rapid social climbing, rapid social descent, espionage, mother / daughter spats, dances, pretty dresses, hostage-befriending, friend beheading, and having three different opinions about the same matter in the space of an episode.  It is, in short, the closest television has gotten to replicating Twitter.

That said, Reign couldn’t have survived entirely on fizz. Shows like Alias and Pretty Little Liars have tried it, and eventually fell flat, as unattended soda must.  What really helps Reign, then, is its commitment to a single unifying thesis: no amount of power will eliminate systemic oppression. Mary may deny her trash husband Darnley (Will Kemp, convincingly sympathetic and hateful as the script requires) political power, but he can still undo her with a simple lie. Greer, Kenna, and Lola, Mary’s ladies, marry during their teenage years in large part because they need to or are made to by circumstances. Existence as a woman, in this show, means having to consider at all times what all the men around you think. In this way, Reign served as a thematic counterpoint to series like Supergirl, and its message that women can do it all.  Being good and moral and heroic is a privilege, in the world of Reign, and one that none of its women can afford, not even a queen. This is not a world where strength is indicated by one’s ability to directly inflict violence (although there’s plenty of that); in a world where sexism is systemic, just surviving and finding a measure of happiness for oneself is often enough.

Given the show’s flights of fancy, it often up to the actors to imbue their characters with weight, and thus, it is fortunate that most of the series’ cast is up to the task. The cast is led by Adelaide Kane (Power Rangers R.P.M., arguably the best season the show has ever had, and which also gave us iZombie’s Rose McIver) who capably embodies Mary and her attempts to remain good in the face of sexism, government work, and constant threats.  The show’s true M.V.P., however, is Megan Follows (Anne of the Green Gables) who plays Catherine De’ Medici, and the one who best understands that survival is a game that doesn’t often admit scruples or hesitation, and that attempting to kill your living children at the behest of your dead ones doesn’t mean you don’t love them.  She and Mary start off as enemies, as they must in this kind of story, but eventually their relationship evolves, as Mary realizes that she’ll need Catherine’s cunning if she’s to survive, and Catherine realizes that Mary could really use the help.  Rounding out the trio is Queen Elizabeth Tudor  (Rachel Skarsten of Lost Girl), who has been defined by court intrigue and now finds herself Queen without the benefits that would be granted to her if she were a man, or the legitimacy of a proper royal bloodline. Together, they buoy a story that manages to feel, despite all the artifice and deviation from history—and there’s quite a lot of that—essentially honest.

Then there’s everyone else. There’s Aylee (Jenessa Grant) Kenna (Caitlin Stacey), Lola (Anna Popplewell) and Greer (Celina Sinden) who begin as Mary’s ladies, but are split apart by circumstance and forced to make their own lives; Francis II (Toby Regbo), Mary’s first husband, who proves to be a match but can only be so for far too short a time; the ambitious and often vengeful Stéphane Narcisse (Craig Parker), who is the sort of slimy that only really works on TV; Bash (Torrance Coombs), Francis’ bastard half-brother, who is made into the only detective on France’s police department so that he can disappear for episodes at a time; Princess Claude (Rose Williams) who is the sort of spoiled brat you eventually come to love anyway.  This is only the tip of the iceberg: this is the closest the CW ever got to Game of Thrones, which means there are about a million characters, and together, they live, love, kill and fuck in ways that are often surprising and almost always entertaining.

It’s worth noting that Elizabeth doesn’t make an appearance until Reign’s season 2 finale, before then becoming the show’s third protagonist, in what is in many ways a spinoff existing within the original show. It’s perhaps the best example of one of the show’s most interesting features, its willingness to drastically shift its cast and focus.  In a medium where the trend is towards cast stability, Reign cycled through cast members in such a way that only three characters who have been around since the beginning have managed to stick around until the end—and this is a four-season show!  While the initial iteration of the show takes place largely in France, where Mary and her ladies dealt with growing up in court in what has been described as Renaissance Gossip Girl, the series, by the time it ended, had split its focus between Scotland (where Mary now resides) England, and France in order to keep up with the three women who strive to lead them. Mary, notably, is now actually a ruling Scotland with only one of her friends or loved ones at her side; everyone else has either died, remained behind, or gone their own way. To a degree, this is a reflection of history: their interactions may consistently be the show’s most interesting, but Mary Stuart and Catherine De Medici’s paths real-life paths diverged, after the death of Francis.  Part of it is simply a function of growing up and growing older. Part of it is a sign that, again, these are women whose ability to control their destinies is in many ways theoretical.

Reign ends tonight, after an abridged fourth season, and while there is in theory plenty of stories that could still be told about Mary, Catherine, and Elizabeth (moreso the latter two than the first), its fate feels appropriate. In ending this way, Reign shares the fate of my two favorite complete CW series, Nikita and Hart of Dixie, which also lasted far longer than their dismal ratings would have suggested and managed to become some of the most solid fare the network’s produced, and which became favorites in large part because they in many ways felt singular. While Reign is nowhere near as consistent as these two series were, it does a bang-up job of being like nothing else on television. Sure, I could compare it to lots of things—recently, it has been brought up quite often in relation to Still Star-Crossed, the story of a post-Romeo & Juliet Verona—but it also most definitively not like those shows. Other shows may have blasé attitudes towards history; no other show has combined it with an uncompromising unwillingness to be anything but what it wants to be: a marvelous, lovely, ridiculous soapy mess, with modern-day fashion passing as 16th century couture, court balls set to instrumental versions of pop hits, and everything the creators wanted.  And that’s worth quite a lot.

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