I don’t go in for sexy vampires and demons and things anymore. Not that I ever really did. There’s nothing wrong with sexy vampires and demons and things, I guess, except that I feel like they’ve taken what was once my favourite network away from me. With The WB of Gilmore/Dawson/Everwood fame a distant memory and the soapy fun of One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl now headed down the same lane, we’re left with a CW full of sexy vampires and demons and things (they’re taking that Buffy legacy very seriously, it seems). Hart of Dixie (LOVE that show) stands very much alone in the earnest remnants of the Gilmore/Dawson/Everwood tradition and what Gossip Girl fans have is Reign.
The show may be set in sixteenth century France but fun and savvy music choices, gloriously fashion-forward costuming (courtesy of always genius Gossip Girl alum Meredith Markworth-Pollack), and a bold streak of modern sensibility make the hyper-addictive freshman drama every bit the heir to Blair Waldorf’s throne. Throughout season one’s 22 episodes, showrunner Laurie McCarthy masterfully managed to flesh out big, fast-paced drama without jumping any sharks or moving along Mary’s timeline too quickly. A strong cast of supporting characters (including a group of ace ladies in waiting) allow for plenty of romance and drama to mix with the densely thrilling court intrigues and international politics. Without losing an ounce of the fun, Reign ups the stakes from Gossip Girl‘s petty fights for high school dominance- this is the throne of France we’re talking about (and Scotland, and England), not the Met steps. And we’re just getting started; 22 episodes have carried us only just to the brink of Francis’ reign as King (I must say, though, I will be sad to see King Henry go. There aren’t many characters who could hump a woman out a window and turn it into a sweet story of reconnection with his wife).
While the France timeline may only have a year or so of storytelling left (the characters have been thankfully aged up a bit but in real life King Francis died at 16, a year into his reign and just 2 years after marrying Mary), the endlessly fascinating and shrewdly chosen subject of Mary Queen of Scots has plenty of story left in her. It will take serious showrunning guts but I’m hoping that McCarthy doesn’t flinch at leaving France and her current set of characters behind in coming seasons (perhaps 2, 3 at the latest) and trusting the more than capable Adelaide Kane to carry her show forward as the titular Queen, even if the rest of the cast has to rotate around her. Assuming The CW allows Reign to survive for many seasons to come (which it really should), we have all sorts of fun still ahead including the death of Francis, a return to Scotland, a forced and unhappy marriage, an explosion, the murder of one husband, a (third!) marriage to the possible murderer, an imprisonment, an abdication, and maybe even an appearance by contentious cousin Lizzie (aka Queen Elizabeth the freaking First). The court of France has been good to Reign and there’s plenty of story left to tell there (at least one full season’s worth) but Mary as a leading lady has a legend spanning decades and continents beyond the current incarnation of her Reign.
Which is not to say that the generally intoxicating court of France has always been the steadiest of storytelling ground. Poor Bash (short for Sebastian in a moment of nicknaming genius)- an utterly compelling character full of bastardly inferiority complexes and heartbreaking amounts of honour- was relegated to spending much of the season searching for some bizarre pagan Big Bad rather than wrestling with a more complicated angle on the religious climate of the time (wouldn’t it be more interesting if Bash still deeply believed in his mother’s pagan religion but had to hide behind his father’s Catholicism to survive? Hey Laurie, let me into that writer’s room!). Anything involving Nostradamus also landed with a pretty big thud (he just reminded me so much of Frankenstein’s Monster, but without all the relatable vulnerability). And then of course there was Olivia, winner of the Worst Character Ever award for this TV season. Kane and Toby Regbo did such a great job from the get go of establishing deep respect and honest affection between Mary and Francis that Olivia never stood a chance of seeming anything but desperate and vengeful. The Francis of Reign is admittedly a bit of a whore (Lola? Really?) but somehow Regbo still manages to make me root for him to be with Mary, one of the most fantastically likeable heroines in recent memory.
But for every dumb Bash quest for “the darkness”, there’s a Queen Catherine murder plot so delicious that you don’t mind that she’s already tried to poison everyone in the castle at least twice before. Queen Catherine, by the way, played by Megan Follows, a Canadian national treasure so beloved that we’d likely sell Parliament if she asked us to (She’s our Anne!). Catherine’s a little bit evil (and, fantastically, a little bit not) but Follows was born to be queen. Nostradamus is annoying but his screentime is minimal compared to Alan Van Sprang’s as the dangerously deviant king Henry and Torrance Coombs’ as king of the brooders Bash. In exchange for tolerating Olivia, we got to see Caitlin Stasey as Kenna, falling victim to her own ambition and haste then piecing a happy life out of a devastatingly cruel forced marriage (kudos also to Coombs on this front for headlining one of the most interestingly emotional sex scenes of the year). All this without even mentioning my favourite subplot of the series so far.
Mary’s ladies in waiting are one of the major keys to the show’s success but it’s the beautiful Celina Sinden as Greer who has become the centre of my favourite story. Mary’s only un-titled confidante and the eldest of three daughters to a controlling father with mountains of debt, Greer’s entire life has been reduced to the single heartbreaking task of “marrying well”, and that doesn’t mean marrying the charming baker boy who wins her heart (and ours) while helping her prepare a picnic for a potential suitor. Played by the wonderful Jonathan Keltz (who might just be the cutest thing to ever happen in this country *awkward acknowledgment of the fact that I totally know that kid’s mom*), Leith is the worthiest of suitors made all the more worthy by the empathy he shows in understanding why Greer can never marry him, no matter how much she wants to. We’ve seen this storyline before- cash poor rich girl forced to marry someone she doesn’t love rather than the poor boy she does (I mean, that’s literally the plot of Titanic, just without the boat)- but, rather than give us some skeezy, maniacal Billy Zane-style fiancé inferior to Leith in every way, Reign did the unexpected and gave us (and Greer) Michael Therriault, National Treasure #2 (of many).
For any of you (Americans, mostly) who don’t know, Michael Therriault is an iconic Canadian actor admired as much for being adorable, kind and generous as for his groundbreaking performances on the country’s biggest stages. When I interviewed him a few years back, he was late because he was helping a mentally disabled boy who got separated from his caretaker on the subway (true story). He carries that with him as Lord Castleroy, Leith’s similarly kind-hearted but helpfully titled competition for Greer’s hand (it’s not really a competition, Castleroy’s pepper-industry fortune trumps Leith’s hopeful, pretty face with no room for matters of the heart). As played by the most likeable man in Canada, Lord Castleroy is wonderfully worthy of Greer’s affection, which he earns very gradually throughout season one by showing her unprecedented respect, freeing her sisters from their father’s control and even pulling what were surely painful strings to save Leith from certain death after his (relatively chaste) affair with Greer was discovered. It’s such a wonderfully achy love triangle, I can’t get enough.
But the Canadian greatness doesn’t stop with Follows and Therriault. Because the series is shot in Toronto (passing off the U of T campus as the French Court to sometimes laughable effect), the cast is filled with local talent to the point where anyone who knows their way around the Toronto theatre scene has double the fun playing “name that guest star”. Need a fierce dame with serious gravitas to go toe to toe with Follows as her powerful Medici mother? Look no further than Soulpepper great Nancy Palk. Need a debaucherous owner for your gambling den/whorehouse? Strapping leading man with a knack for comedy Evan Buliung fits the bill nicely. My Theatre favourites Eli Ham and Andy Trithardt guard the Tower of London and Henry’s castle respectively. I’m pretty sure that was John Fray I saw delivering a package. Spencer Robson accidentally ruined Lola’s life (that one hurt a bit). Matt Baram, Ari Cohen, Tara Nicodemo, Matthew MacFadzean, Dylan Trowbridge– it seems that everybody at French court lives a double life earning rave reviews and My Theatre Award nominations. It’s just more fun watching Queen Catherine plot her escape from the Tower when you’ve seen her guard murder King Duncan.
Long story not-so-short, Reign is the best show to come from the CW in quite some time (at least the best one set in a non-vampiric/demonic world). It’s smartly conceived, beautifully designed, well-plotted, perfectly cast and, if you combine it with some quick Wikipedia fact-checking, you might even find that you’ve learned something about one of history’s most fascinating figures.