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The CW’s ‘Reign’ Is the Guilty-Pleasure Period Drama You’ve Been Waiting For

Tonight the CW premieres a new series called Reign. It’s effectively The Tudors, filtered through a CW sensibility — lots of pop music and a candy-colored palette — and transposed onto the slightly more recent story of Mary, Queen of Scots. Everyone in this show is surpassingly attractive. There’s a great deal of sex, and a girl in one of those tattered burlap masks, and also a really hot Nostradamus. And then there is its genius casting of Megan Follows, best known as Anne of Green Gables, as Catherine de Medici. Basically I just like the idea that Anne grew up to be queen, and also that I can now nerdily mention that Anne directed the Mary, Queen of Scots play at the boarding school where she taught in Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel. Intertextuality is a great and wondrous thing.

The truth is, someone like me was destined to like this show. It’s pure fantastical princess-wish fulfillment, a guilty-pleasure type of thing that is deeply relaxing to watch, and effectively bait for any woman who was obsessed with royalty as a teenager. The pilot does not display any kind of extraordinarily intelligent writing, but it’s competent. And a great deal of fun.

It isn’t terribly authentic, of course. Mary herself was indeed considered a beauty in her day. But Francis, the dauphin of France whom she was engaged to marry, was short and apparently stuttered, a far cry from the beautiful blond specimen here. Mary did have four ladies-in-waiting, but they were known as the “four Marys,” because they all shared that name. The CW decided to clear that up by naming them Lola, Greer, Aylee, and Kenna, names that don’t exactly shout “authentic 16th century.” And, uh, Nostradamus was rather older.

But much as in the novels of someone like Tracy Chevalier or Philippa Gregory, historical veracity is sublimated to fun. The pseudo-goth dresses with see-through panels and the heavy-handed soundtrack are at least wielded without the kind of heavy self-seriousness that plagued The Tudors. There is something about abandoning all pretense of authenticity that gives this story a lightness it badly needs; dead-seriousness just isn’t something that plays all that well at the moment.

Reign has already made some noise for cutting a longish masturbation scene featuring one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting. It still exists in the pilot you’ll see tonight, in truncated form that makes it less than clear why it was cut at all. It’s not like the message isn’t still there. And of course they still left in the part where an older character happens upon her, and decides to, er, asisst.

In fact, Reign‘s approach to sexual explicitness is, at the moment, pretty schizophrenic. As befits something with a 16th-century setting, there’s a lot of heavy breathing and unconsummated hopes, but even where the sex is sanctioned by marriage it happens behind a screen. And as seems to be becoming the rule in pilots, there’s a rape attempt with a sort of 16th-century roofie involved. In this case, unlike American Horror Story, it isn’t ultimately successful. There’s something unsettling, still, about the fact that this is becoming a comfortable trope for network television, whereas a young woman masturbating is not.

I mention all of this not because I think Reign needs to go in the softcore direction of The Tudors or even Game of Thrones, but because the pilot just didn’t quite get where it needed to on that point. Reign has the unlucky privilege of airing in a television universe particularly shaped by the latter show. At this point it’s hard to recognize a drama about power that doesn’t quite directly address sex; A Man For All Seasons itself would seem coy to modern audiences without an update. No one even buys the argument about protecting the delicate sensibilities of teenagers, at this point. (Sorry, Parents Television Council.) And all of that isn’t even to mention that the drama of a queen ascending to the throne was always about sex, and specifically how to protect her virtue. I guess what I’m saying is this: if Reign wants to go the fun, campy porn route, then it should go whole hog. Let Fun Porn be Fun Porn. And let’s hope it also brings back puffed sleeve in the process.

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