Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Reign is TV to get drunk to. It’s so utterly committed to its vision of reimagining the story of Mary, Queen Of Scots, as a CW teen soap obviously produced in the year 2013 that it becomes weirdly admirable. It’s like a little kid who tells everyone he wants to grow up to be a dog. At a certain point, one has to simply pat him on the head and tell him he can do anything he wants if he puts his mind to it.
Fortunately for viewers, the “are you in?” moment comes ridiculously early in the pilot. After a silent, bearded man looks upon a tree that appears to drip blood, contemporary Mumford & Sons-esque rock begins to rattle away on the soundtrack before the camera cuts to an opulent castle beneath a brilliant blue sky. “FRANCE, 1557” reads the onscreen text, and Reign is off to the races. Along the way, there will be no cliché it won’t violate, no trope it won’t sample (even if it seems to belong to a different genre entirely), no Lumineers track it will leave unused. It’s a steamroller of a show, piling up obstacles in the way of the audience’s enjoyment, then flattening them into dust before popping a wheelie and honking its horn five or six times because it just realized where the horn was.
Holding all of this together as best she can is Adelaide Kane, as Mary Stuart. Kane, probably best known for her work on Teen Wolf, turns out to be a real find, not least of which is because she’s able to give this story something of a center. Her lower lip quivers at the right moments, stiffens up to indicate resolve at the right moments, and breaks into a smile at the right moments. The camera focuses on those micro-expressions more than it might on other shows because she’s sometimes the only thing preventing the audience from getting whiplash.
The true story of Mary, Queen Of Scots, is pretty boring, so Reign has souped it up by tossing in anything it can think of. The real Mary’s union to the Dauphin Francis of France lasted a very short time, but he ended up dying of an ear infection. Yet the show treats whatever will happen to him someday as a matter of grave import, fitting for dark, foreboding prophecies. (Those prophecies naturally come from Nostradamus, here presented as a young, brooding hunk played by Rossif Sutherland, rather than the old man he was at this time in real life, because The CW.) Similarly, it’s given Francis a bastard half-brother who didn’t exist in real life, turned Megan Follows’ Catherine De Medici into a dark specter of doom, and offered the suggestion of ghosts in the castle and terrifying monsters in the forests. (At one point, Mary’s dog makes a break for the woods, and one character asks another if it was drawn to the blood without any explanation for that inquiry.)
Yet Reign is on The CW and, thus, can’t just be a period piece filled with courtly intrigue and a hint of supernatural weirdness. It also wants to be a goofy, sexy teen soap, where Kane and her entourage are treated like medieval celebrities and subjected to the paparazzi scrum before getting a chance to just cut loose and dance. On this side of the show, there are the usual love triangles and bitter recriminations among friends, but they’re definitely given a boost by the fact that the show’s protagonist could be poisoned at any time, for pretty much any reason.
The two tones shouldn’t work together at all. Even more fittingly, Reign seems to realize this. Yet it keeps stumbling forward, somehow weaving past the obstacles in its path, arriving on the other side of the pilot with only a few major bruises. The script by Laurie McCarthy and Stephanie SenGupta never finds a wholly convincing Venn diagram intersection between period piece and teen soap, but it also doesn’t bother trying, hoping it can turn insane tonal shifts into a virtue by stepping on the gas. That this approach mostly works is thanks to their script being unafraid to unleash the crazy and the surprisingly beautiful direction from Brad Silberling, who makes the most of an Irish location shoot the rest of the series won’t have the advantage of.
Plus, the cast members seem to be having the time of their lives. Follows, probably best known for being Anne Of Green Gables in the famed miniseries of the book, digs into the “Joan Collins in Dynasty” phase of her career with relish, while Alan Van Sprang offers up an enjoyably stern King Henry II of France. Sutherland makes for an agreeably goofy and hunky Nostradamus. Mary’s retinue of teenagers doesn’t really stand out just yet (though Anna Popplewell has some fun with her role), but all of the actors are clearly committed to whatever the show is trying to do. Only the two dudes (one of whom is named Sebastian and called “Bash,” in further evidence of this show’s general insanity) competing for Mary’s hand disappoint, receding into generic hunks with generic-hunk problems (if negotiating tricky, shifting alliances in “FRANCE, 1557” can be called generic).
There’s another good reason to watch the Reign pilot: The series itself will almost never be this entertaining again. So much of what works stems from the choice to shoot in Ireland, and in order for the production to make budgetary sense, every other episode will be shot in Toronto. (It’s a wonder where the normally budget-conscious CW got the money to even make this pilot. Perhaps in a daring bank heist.) Some shows are fun as experiences the viewer has once, with friends or Twitter to help with the trash talk and a couple of beers on the side. Reign fits that bill just about perfectly.