Vampires. Supernatural super-people. Meticulously groomed romantics questing for fulfillment and love. Or a modeling contract. Such are the genres and tropes that fuel The CW, the country’s biggest peddler of YA fantasy outside of Barnes & Noble. This season has seen the netlet take a well-calculated risk with Reign, which would be just like all of its other soapy sagas built around a beautiful crusader burdened by crushing responsibility — if it weren’t set nearly 500 years ago.
Historical fiction with an emphasis on fiction, Reign follows 15-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots (Teen Wolf’s Adelaide Kane, commanding and confident), freshly sprung from the convent and exported to France to carry out a negotiated marriage to future king Francis (Toby Regbo). Fortunately, she kinda ships the peachy-faced prince, and maybe his broody bastard half bro (Torrance Coombs), too. Mary’s would-be mother-in-law (Megan Follows), a conniving striver who sweats a vision by physician-seer Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland) that the union will destroy her son and country, plots against her. Mary’s ladies-in-waiting — a well-cast quartet including newcomers Caitlin Stasey and Celina Sinden — are sport for the leering mad men of King Henry’s (Alan Van Sprang) court. Welcome to Sexual Servitude and the City…if the city were a castle, and there were a cult in the woods that practiced human sacrifice, and there were an alleged ghost that communicated via marbles. Also: sexy Nostradamus!
Somehow Reign stays well short of camp. In fact, in depicting a culture that’s hostile to ideals, treats women as property even as it promises empowerment, and turns everyone into playas, haters, and sellouts, the show feels vaguely relevant. Like Arrow’s Oliver Queen, Mary is defined by heroic duty that gives her purpose but also degrades her. It’s Game of Thrones lite, and it’s entertaining enough. But it’s hard to know whether to admire Mary’s strength or shudder at it, as she and her friends represent queasy wish fulfillment for anyone with an ounce of feminism. As long as we’re making stuff up, perhaps women’s lib can arrive 400 years early.
But what Reign lacks most right now is the nerve of its steamy, stylish, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink premiere. The episodes since have involved fewer characters and pulled back on the gothy and risqué bits. Perhaps you heard that The CW cut a masturbation scene from the pilot. That’s the rub of Reign: It’s a perfectly respectable period YA soap, but it would be a lot more fun if it could play with itself some more. B-