The easiest way to discuss The CW’s new series Reign, a kind of Hunky History for Girls retelling of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her brief teenage marriage to the French boy king Francis II, is to use that old Sam Cooke song Wonderful World as a checklist:
Don’t know much about history ... Fer shure, dude.
Don’t know much biology ... Hmm. Any actual grownup who sees this is going to say it’s got way too much biology, especially the part below the waist.
Don’t know much about a science book ... Well, it’s got witchcraft and human sacrifice. On The CW, that’s practically quantum physics.
Don’t know much about the French I took ... No kidding. When the French see this, they’re going to fly into such a rage that they might even punch out Jerry Lewis.
You get the picture. Reign is something less than a masterpiece of scholarship. But The CW targeted an audience more interested in hair chalk and cake pops than the political economy of 16th century Europe, and has never had the intellectual pretensions of the History Channel or even the Game Show Network. If you think of Reign as Mary, Teen of Scots — a sort of Gossip Girl where the consequence of wearing the wrong outfit is not exclusion from the cool cafeteria table but beheading — it can be surprisingly entertaining.
Adelaide Kane ( Teen Wolf) stars as Mary, the Scottish queen who at 16 leaves an English convent where she’s been stored for safekeeping. (Poisoning pretenders to the throne was the favorite parlor game of British royals in those days, Scattergories not having been invented yet.) Destination: France, where she’ll fulfill her politically convenient betrothal to Francis, two years her junior.
The French royal court turns out to be considerably more interesting than the convent: Assassins. Rapists. Ghosts. Somebody or something unresplendently known around the castle as The Girl With the Wrecked Face who whispers dire prophecies from behind closed doors.
And, of course, boys. Not only has Francis (Brit TV actor Toby Regbo) been upgraded from his historical self — short, stuttering and wimpy — to a major hottie, but he’s been given a wholly fictional hard-bod half-brother named Bash (Torrance Coombs, The Tudors). The result is a nascent romantic triangle or even, given Reign’s sexual exuberance, a possible three-way: Kinky encounters, ranging from marriage consummation as a spectator sport to the previously unknown tendency of the French to engage in self-abuse on stairways, are legion.
Soapy and silly this all may be, but immersion in the intrigue of Reign has its pleasures, not all of them from laughing at its absurdities. (Mary, boasting that she’s no mere royal heirhead: “I can milk a goat!”) Kane’s portrait of a teenager with a dawning realization that her royal caprices can have unexpectedly grim consequences offers an interesting take on the traditional coming-of-age story.
And the show’s gothic notes at times ring eerily indeed. When Mary dismisses murmurings that the castle is haunted with the declaration that she’s never seen a ghost, she has no answer to the chilling response of a friend: “But what if they saw you?”