REIGN: important thoughts on the pilot

It seems lame to write an intro to this series, since I expect these posts will have a readership of one other person besides me, and I also expect her to chime in (no free rides, Tucc). As with most things I would prefer to launch into it in medias res, like some wizened old servant rambling through a Chekhov play or an important paid writer on that publishing platform "Medium." Only I’m 90% thumbs down on Medium and this of course will be "Well Done." Heh heh, although I must be the eight billionth person to think up that hilarious joke.

Anyway, time to start a new series of posts to talk about TV (because those are so hard to come by) but first & most importantly to talk about REIGN, a show that appears in my mind in all caps, always, and which I usually append to UGH, REIGN. As in, UGH, REIGN: the worst show I've ever wasted this much thinking on. How much? So much it's almost a full-time second job. Luckily it's summer now, a season of impending misery and isolation for me personally, since I have zero humidity coping mechanisms, but also a lot of time on my hands to devote to serious pursuits and napping. I'm roping in Tucc as a sidekick because she's smart and fun and has a lot to add, and sooner or later I'll get tired of talking to myself.

So let's rewind and start from the beginning (this is not a review and not a recap—we'll only cover what amuses us or what we legitimately care about. This will never include Lola. FYI.).

It takes a lot of work to put together a decent pilot, as any nutbar on the street can tell you. It has to set the scene, introduce all the characters and the relationships between them, establish the universe they’ll inhabit, and set the story in motion, and do all of this without making it seem like too much of a data dump. Some pilots succeed (West Wing, Mad Men, BSG, Friends) and others stink, or at least reveal that the writers haven’t yet nailed down the characters or tone (The Office, Parks and Rec, Happy Endings) and some are by rote time-wasters everybody clearly wants to plow through in order to start telling the real story in the weeks to come (New Girl, Happy Endings, almost everything else).

In the sense that it meets the aforementioned pilot objectives, I'll award REIGN a somewhat surprising C+. The first 10 minutes are devoted entirely to setup (what TV Tropes calls “Everyone Meets Everyone”) but not in a bad way; it propels itself forward at a steady pace, takes care of business, and is mostly expensive looking. The clothes are also plausibly period-centric, although no one’s saying which period, which is perfectly okay by me. I could not give less of a shit about whether or not the costumes suit this particular show’s timeframe. It isn't some Merchant–Ivory-type prestige affair gunning for multiple Oscar noms, it’s a soap opera on a fourth-tier broadcast network devoted to teens who maybe aren't into balloon pants and neck ruffs. Context matters. There’s a case to be made, via my good friend Bob Mondello* on this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour , that period clothing can in some cases distract the audience from the story being told. He was speaking in reference to the trend of modernizing the clothing/setting of Shakespeare plays, but surely the same applies to stupid REIGN. Also, adhering to strictly period-appropriate costumes for this entire huge cast would blow the budget in five minutes of airtime.

Anyway Pt II: my feeling is that doubling down on a ballsy, exposition-heavy 10-minute opening sequence is ultimately the right move, and they manage to pack in a lot of intrigue (including a glimpse of Baghead!) whilst laying out major narrative themes: growing up female, growing up royal, free will vs. duty, precarious marital ties, adultery, money, power, prognostications, and hair. Lots and lots of hair. Plus I’m a sucker for an underscore of impending doom announced by loud repetitive humming, strumming and pounding, as well as the hammering clop of approaching horse hooves.

It's probably not possible to take a bad photo of someone like Adelaide Kane. Gaze upon her, she is a gorgeous otherworldly beauty. As an actress, though, she seems slightly unprepared to carry a whole series. For example, this is a common look on Mary’s face regardless of circumstance or emotion. Sort of a one-size-fits-all standard expression, whether she’s watching a favorite nun and secret food taster foam at the mouth and keel over into her own oatmeal or whether she’s about to kiss a cute boy for the first time. Not a lot of nuance displayed for occasions you would think would demand it. Unless it's a deliberate strategy on somebody’s part, as we all know a queen is never supposed to follow or even reveal her true heart. In which case, way to keep it under wraps. But Mary Stuart sans makeup is about as pretty as it gets.

I didn’t realize I loved Bash until I saw Torrance Coombs speaking without an accent in the DVD extras and then started following him on Twitter. That’s how embarrassingly long it took me to appreciate Bash. At first I was like, who is this dork getting in the way of things all the time. What a fly in the ointment. Now that I’m educated I can rewind through all of season one and enjoy him hanging around or riding off heedlessly into the Blood Wood on some pagan death errand, following his own crazy star path and doing his best not to raise anyone’s ire. He’s impertinent and reckless yet seems to come by it honestly, on account of being a bastard. Who’s cooler than bastards? Nobody.

Oh no wait there is one person cooler than bastards, and guess who's the boss: well of course it's Queen Catherine. There's literally no other reason I would be watching this show or even know it existed were it not for motherfucking Megan Follows. How good is her wordless acting that this is the very first scene we see of her playing this character, and just by virtue of her giving dumb ol' Henry the side eye, we immediately know he's an idiot. Also—this just occurred to me while studying this screencap—note how she's standing in a subservient position relative to him, occupying a completely separate plane and being forced to look up at him while he's turned away from her. Just like a king who's also an idiot. I guess that’s smart stage direction, though, not something brilliant the actors just dreamed up on their own. So props to you, REIGN behind-the-scenes creatives! It's also great shorthand for us the audience into what her job as queen mostly consists of (keeping an eye on Henry while constantly being exasperated). And this whole setup is especially rich considering how far out in front of him Catherine is in just about everything but sleeping with ladies. MF'ing MF also looks especially innocent and at her Anne of Green Gables-est here, doesn't she? That's a con, though. Don't fall for it.

It is a little strange how she's wearing a choker with chains attached, which isn't a look that happens very often, or ever again that I know of, and for obvious reasons; i.e., many people would like to choke Catherine. She's probably the #1 choking target in the whole castle, maybe in all the land. People would come from miles around to choke Catherine! But she's too poison-savvy and flush with familial Italian doubloons to get backed into those corners very often. I don't worry so much about QC, tbh. She's one character we know is leaving this show alive. (Thanks for the spoilers, History.) And as we all learn in season 2 (another spoiler), death by necklace is something Catherine does to others, not something done unto her.

Poor Braidy exits the cab last and hangs back there all alone, a sure sign she’s not long for this world. She’s also vaguely Bo-Peepish in contrast to the others, who look like a couple of bruisers who can handle themselves in a bar fight. Greer is obviously the brains of the operation. She sizes up the whole situation in mere seconds, which is indicative of her having a good head on her shoulders (most of the time) and will serve her well (ditto). Kenna is only interested in gossip and Lola doesn’t do much but stand around and squint. Typical Lola.

This is the high point for me and Francis in this ep, him eschewing the pomp and circumstance in favor of charging diagonally across the lawn in his leather ‘n velvet Captain Jack Sparrow-at-a-Ren-Faire ensemble. I appreciate a nice stride, is what I’m saying. But I don’t have many feelings about Francis yet. As with most soaps, his character and motivations shift radically from scene to scene and from episode to episode, and backtrack a lot, depending on which direction or how fast/slow they need the storyline to move. And I get that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” etc., but he can be a real wet blanket, in terms of charm and appeal compared to Bash. Also I prefer dark-haired dudes with angry eyebrows to blondes with scruffy chin hair. Sorry.

Here’s the first two-shot we get of Cathy and the Proph (™ Genevieve Valentine) standing side by side. I’m not sure if she’s perched on a box in this scene or what, since most of the time he looks two heads taller than she is and here they seem more evenly matched. It’s possible she’s so good she can just grow on command. Add that to your IMDB credits, Megan Follows! Or maybe it’s that he looks bigger when he’s wearing his usual bear costume and for this event he evidently said to himself, “Seems like a temperate spring day out there, what with the blooming flowers and welcoming party and all, why don’t I chill for once and leave the bear at home. Best not to frighten the ladies.” Good call, Nosty. You’re the size of Paul Bunyan AND his blue ox, but try to fit in.

This is Catherine’s sincere reaction to a declaration of love between two baby morons. It so perfectly captures her glee at knowing she has some new secret to stash in her back pocket for future use. What a grab bag of devilish secrets this one lugs around with her. I always appreciate it when her gown reflects the color of her own epic perpetual simmering rage, but what's up with this weird hand position she has going on. For the life of me I can’t figure out how her fingers fit together, it's like she has a deformed crab claw that is also a club. Maybe one of her poisons got away from her. And then how she says to Colin, “You come from former servants” almost like it’s a question and something she'd be impressed by. Come on. QC would never be impressed by the staff. She’s not that advanced. The whole lesson from this scene is you do not ever want to be left in a room alone with Catherine. I don't care if you have to chew your own arm off, just flee.

I’m not too interested in Baghead’s plot at this juncture, either. I can’t identify with people pulling burlap sacks over their noggins and dwelling in spidery passages. That's not the kind of Nancy Drew I am. I’d gladly accept the top candle-procuring job on set though. I would just tool around suburban Toronto in my candle truck till I found a Pier One, then back it up to the loading dock and holler, Give me everything you’ve got, we shoot in like an hour and I still have to get all of these lit. I'd be the most popular customer at every Pier One and Cost Plus World Market in Canada. Sort of a vagabond hero to the whole wax retail profession.

This shoeless dancing scene, however. It's such a disaster. Who behaves like this at the royal wedding of some future sister-in-law you hardly know? It’s the one scene that, if I’d started watching the series with this episode, would have made me sensibly turn off the TV and throw it out the window. (Luckily I started with “Inquisition” which turned out to be a killer move, because “Inquisition” is everything I want out of life. I cannot wait to type out my feelings about “Inquisition” on this here blog.) I’m so deeply insulted by anyone with decision-making power thinking this is a good way to demonstrate that these girls are plucky free-spirit teens bringing a breath of fresh air to this stuffy old castle. It just makes them seem dumb, and even Lola, who’s plenty dumb, isn’t that dumb. I know these scenes function as a signal that their naive hopes and dreams will inevitably be crushed by the Man (or Woman) and the System and Life, but I’m still insulted as both a grownup and as someone who would have found it equally pandering as a youth. 

The only thing that makes it worthwhile is Catherine watching from the sidelines and muttering “We’re overrun by Scots" to herself. I love it the most when she hates anything. She’s now sporting some sort of brass zipper contraption that actually unzips around her neck, another weird accessory we will never see again. In a group shot like this they all look like the Addams Family, only Henry is Uncle Fester and Nosty is Grandma. Diane is whatever that dragon thing is that lives under the stairs on the Munsters. She’s so unwelcome as part of the REIGN gang that she’s an unseen monster from a whole other derivative show.

Henry sucking on somebody’s neck will never not be a fun visual for me. It’s so who Henry is, a purebred horndog on every conceivable existential level. (Every time I type "horndog" my keyboard autocorrects it to "corndog," which not coincidentally is also a thing I love. Still, let's not muddy the waters.) Certainly he seems better at this than he ever is at being king. Also, I’ll state for the record that I do not hate and have never hated Kenna. She serves a free-wheelin’ yet mercenary purpose, in that she always knows what her goal is and does not deviate from it. She cries a lot and is not the best at carrying out a scheme, but she’s also the only one of the ladies whose heart doesn't lead her down some dark back alley to misery. In fact, she does pretty much whatever her heart advises her not to, then bounces back like a Weeble when it all inevitably falls to pieces. Respect.

This modern-day web format also enables me to insert a hyperlink to that great interview Megan Follows did with Vulture way back when, where the interviewer asks her (for who knows what reason) what she liked about Kenna's masturbation scene (which was mostly cut), and Megan Follows is all "It's masturbating, what's not to like"? Respect again. That's why she's the MF.

In closing I’d just like to present Nosty at the giving tree, watching blood REIGN down from the sky. There's nothing else I can say after this, really. The end.

* I don't actually know Bob Mondello.