Fall 2013 Review: Reign

18 Nov

Queen and Duaphin

In a recent review of the ABC show Betrayal, I wondered how that show every made it through all the steps that go from conception to airing, considering not simply just how uninteresting and pointless it was, but how it didn’t seem to hold any possible appeal or have any obvious hook that would make network people keep moving it up that ladder.

CW shows, and Reign, in particular, are the exact opposite. CW has a much tighter, clearer, and more cohesive brand than any of the other broadcast networks, which makes sense because the CW airs fewer shows and draws a lot fewer overall viewers. Additionally, the CW has a niche; they hew to a base demographic of around 18-34 year-old females. CW shows focus on young people, often teens, but sometimes twenty-somethings and feature these wide-eyed youths exposed to new situations, with complicated love lives. These shows are generally slightly more earnest than soaps, but more fun than dark. They’re not particularly humorous, but they try to refrain from being too stiff as well.

Every single scripted show the CW airs is smartly targeted towards this demographic, and even those that don’t work don’t fail because they didn’t make sense theoretically but simply because of the execution or they don’t catch on. Emily Owens, MD was cancelled, for example, but it fit the CW’s core focus to a T. There’s certainly plenty of arguments to make on the value of a brand this consistent and similar versus a brand with little bit more variety, but I certainly appreciate the CW’s approach, as a network in a unique position of being compared to the much larger networks but only airing a few new shows every year.

Reign fits perfectly within this pattern. The main characters is a teenage Mary Queen of Scots, just escorted from the nunnery she was being kept at for her own safety to the King’s court in France. She’s betrothed to the future king of France, Francis, son of current king Henry II. It’s a perfect CW spin on historical drama. It’s about a teenage girl who faces lots of problems every teenage girl deals with – figuring out who your true friends are, finding love, and finding acceptance while feeling like out of place, simply with the added twist that she’s Queen of Scotland, in constant danger from potential English assassins, and one day to be married to the king of France.

There’s already a potential love triangle from episode one. Mary’s betrothed, Francis, is charming, standoffish, romantic and coldly practical in equal parts towards Mary in the pilot. He tells her that he doesn’t think they should marry for strategic reasons, but intimates that just maybe he kind of wants to marry her, which warms Mary’s heart. Us viewers also know that he has another woman in his life. On the other side of the triangle is Francis’s bastard half-brother, Sebastian, who is mysterious and charming, a bad boy who gets to ride around doing what he wants because he’s a bastard who no one cares about while Francis, with the future of a country on his shoulders, must stay in the castle under guard at all times. Mary, of course, knows that marriage in her case is about alliances, but she wants true love at the same time.

Mary has a difficult relationship with her friends, her ladies’ maids, because she wants to frolic and play with them, but she’ll always be above them in statute and that’s not always easy for her or them to deal with. She’s a target, while they’re not, and she’s treated with a level of respect that they aren’t by others. Many CW shows have a queen bee, but this one just has a queen (There’s a tagline for you, CW. You’re welcome). Most CW shows have figurative backstabbing, but in Reign, it’s a literal possibility. A man attempts to rape Mary in the first episode, forced by a mysterious plotter to despoil her so she would be unfit to marry the future king.

King Henry may be the king, but the show implies that the real power lies with Queen Catherine de’ Medici. While Henry seems to sleep with every woman with a pulse in the court (we know at least two, but it seems likely there are more), it’s Catherine’s money that keeps France running. Catherine consults occasionally with the seer Notradamus who ominously warns her that marrying Mary will lead to her son’s death. In the last minutes we find out it was indeed her behind the plot to rape the Queen.

Reign is very good at what it does, being a mash up between a historical drama and a typical CW show about teens growing up, which doesn’t mean it’s good. I’m not the intended audience and I can appreciate what it has qualities that the primary CW demographic might enjoy. Still, it’s a little gooey and flowery for my tastes when it talks about love and a little stilted when it talks about intrigue and politics.  There’s nothing here that pulls me in, and the two boys seem more like 16th century takes on two boys that occupy any CW love triangle rather than full-blown characters. It’s not bad; it’s merely mediocre.

Queen Mary is so wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, confused and confounded at every new experience and there’s plenty of places the show can go with both romantic subplots and political angle. Reign feels like a teen soap hidden behind the intrigue of a historical drama. It feels that way because it’s supposed to, but the too styles don’t really mesh exactly right. The romantic teen angle takes a little too much edge off for a show in which the main character faces potential death in the first episode, and the darker political subplots feel out of place with the ladies’ maids dancing that feels like a montage from any high school movie.  I’m not sure if there’s a way to match these two styles correctly and convincingly. The writing isn’t convincing enough to make me buy in to most of the characters’ motivations or to seamlessly transition from teen soap to high stakes historical politics.There are two separate shows taking place over the same hour, and neither is really bad, but neither is quite good enough on their own and the combination doesn’t really work for me.

Will I watch it again? No. It was fine, I certainly wouldn’t advise specifically against it, and there are people out there who will like this. Those people aren’t me, though.

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