I should open by admitting that I am not The CW's target demographic when it comes to their new series 'Reign.' This is a show that is in some ways about Mary Queen of Scots and any viewer who knows absolutely anything about Mary Stuart or Francis II of France is going to be frustrated by this show. Still, The CW is not making a documentary, they're using the French Royal Court as a backdrop for a show about sex, lies and murder--so for the purposes of this review I've elected to ignore all inaccuracies and the dozens of anachronisms to instead just judge 'Reign's pilot as an episode of television.
So: does 'Reign' deliver?
The premise for the show is solid: Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) has been living in a convent since the age of 9, before being summoned out of exile to court, where she’s supposed to marry France’s Prince Francis (Toby Regbo). She’s quickly united with her four ladies in waiting, who form Mary's social circle as they seek husbands of their own. They all swoon when they meet Francis' bastard half-brother Bash (Torrance Coombs), a notorious womanizer who, like Francis, has perfected the CW-two-day-beard-stubble look. So what's the problem for poor Mary? Well, aside from the Protestant sympathizers who have been attempting to assassinate her since she was a baby, there is also Francis' mother, the Queen (Megan Follows), who wants to prevent Mary from wedding Francis at all costs.
Why is the Queen so dead-set against this union? Is it to protect France? No, it's because Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland) told her that Mary will be the downfall of young Francis. Add to this a mysterious girl in a burlap mask who wishes to protect Mary from the evils of the court and you've got enough pieces to make an intriguing puzzle over the course of a television season.
In sticking with the positives, 'Reign' is headlined by Adelaide Kane, an Australian actress from this year's film 'The Purge.' In many ways, 'Reign' was going to be made or broken based on their leading lady and it appears that they earned themselves a good one. Kane isn't going to set the world on fire with her performance but she appears quite up to the task that the series presents. The best acting in the pilot comes from Megan Follows as the Queen; she is intimidating and threatening without ever having to try to appear so. Follows' Queen has all of the power--she always has and she is completely comfortable in that role. She needn't appear threatening because her might is threat enough. It was Follows' performance that made me want to watch another episode, next week.
As for what isn't working: I can't say anything positive about the performances of either Regbo or Coombs, but we know they weren't cast for their acting chops. 'Reign' needed pretty boys and the duo provide that quite well. But the largest problem with 'Reign' comes not from the acting nor even the writing--while a tad by-the-numbers, the writing of the pilot is a boon and not a detriment.
The problem with 'Reign' is that it doesn't know what sort of show it wants to be. The episode was tonally and thematically schizophrenic; at times it appeared to be asserting itself as a tense, Royal thriller filled with intrigue, but then the tension would be subverted by awful contemporary pop songs and unnecessary music-video-style montage. Then, you'd grow accustomed to the pop music and the giggling girls and expect the show to become 'Sex and the City' in the 1500s, which would then be thrown aside when a sudden grim threat or murder attempt took place. I was taken out of the experience of watching the show by the needless montage scenes of Mary's ladies applying make up, dancing on the dance floor, or scampering about the palace. The pilot of 'Reign' kept attempting to build tension while still keeping the light-hearted, pop music adventure vibe and the result was a confused mess.
In the vein of trying to have it both ways, these ladies in waiting are of indeterminate age but it is certain that they are very young. They play dress-up and speak of finally looking like they are of age, they go exploring in a castle while discussing where they used to play... and then we are offered a scene where they are so overcome with sexuality that they are forced to run into dark stairwells to masturbate. At best, this was an odd attempt to portray lost innocence on screen, but the juxtaposition of the child-like attributes with the injected sexuality made the whole show feel uncomfortable rather than exciting.
So, in the end, 'Reign' is an impressive new series with a lot of money behind it and a lot of pretty people for The CW to put on display. It is an entertaining, fluff, corny show but you will enjoy it if you aren't looking for historical accuracy or mature sensibility.
And if you don't mind that half of the episode is a music video.