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Historical TV Should Stop Taking Liberties, But Not For the Reasons You Think

Historical TV Should Stop Taking Liberties, But Not For the Reasons You Think

Though Indiewire prides itself on the appreciation of the so-called high-end television of HBO, Showtime and other premium and cable networks, we’re no snobs when it comes to TV. We enjoy a good CW or Fox show now and then, even though we might not be the target audience, as long as it’s done well.
One of those well-done, teen-targeting series is the CW’s “Reign,” which follows the story of Mary, Queen of Scots as a teenager in 16th century France. Like many of The CW’s other dramas, its core audience is teenage girls or young women who enjoy lavish (though ridiculously inaccurate) costumes, hunky heroes and conflicted heroines who share their same confusion about love and relationships.
From the start, “Reign” had veered way out of historical accuracy territory. The ages of Mary, her prince, Francis, and their close subjects were increased to those more suitable for teenage romance (and teenage lust), an entirely fictional half brother named Sebastian (hilariously nicknamed “Bash”) was invented to create a Season 1 love triangle (which boy would Mary end up with!?) and the intricacies of ruling in Renaissance-era Europe, which in reality would make for intense drama, fell to the wayside. The series’ creators dealt with the minor backlash, with executive producer Laurie McCarthy saying, “In each episode we’ll educate people on what element of history helps our story.” After all, no one was really tuning into “Reign” for a history lesson.

“Reign” has hardly been the first historically-set series that has veered off the rails. Showtime’s “The Tudors” was walloped on a weekly basis for its salacious additions to the portrayal of King Henry the VIII and the Protestant Reformation in England. Showtime repeated the tactic with “The Borgias” (though that series needed fewer additions considering how scandalous that family was in reality). Even “Downton Abbey” was no stranger to the claims by some that it was historically off. And the same criticisms constantly hit the world of film. Just this year, Oscar-nominated films “Selma,” “American Sniper” and “The Imitation Game” were all slammed with the inaccurate label, with historians or those involved weighing in on how the film was mistaken in some element. And those three were just this year, let’s not forget the incidents involving Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” or Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” 

But how close to history should a period drama stick? When you’re dealing with well-documented events, where outcomes are known and villains aren’t a secret, what’s the key in making it interesting? Many would argue that it is those insertions of fiction that make any historical film or TV show bearable. After all, details like intimate conversations between Abe and Mary Todd, which no one was privy to, made the 16th President all the more human, which seemed to be the goal of the film from the start. 

But what happens when a series’ historical inaccuracies become a hinderance? When, instead of adding drama or intrigue, they lead to a lull? During the second season, the added storylines of Mary’s rape by a Protestant gang, her fictionalized romance with Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé (who was in reality involved in a Protestant plot against the crown) and the continued presence of Sebastian have all veered “Reign” not only into the land of fiction, but the land of bad fiction. Mary’s rape has (understandably) left her an emotional zombie, which doesn’t necessarily make for good TV. Bash’s sham marriage is falling apart, and he’s investigating some weird supernatural elements that sound like they belong in another CW series. It’s one thing to delineate from history to make a series more entertaining, but its another thing entirely when that delineation is responsible for a series’ sophomore slump.

When we last left “Reign” last month, Francis had taken ill, bleeding from the ear, suggesting showrunners might in fact kill him via his true-to-history ear infection, rather than some heroic fictional battle. From here, Mary’s real story is far more interesting than anything “Reign” has going on for it right now. Considering that, once Francis succumbed to his illness, she returned to Scotland to a divided country, remarried a Lord who was then blown up by her third husband, who by the way is long believed to have abducted her. This was all before she was locked in a tower by Queen Elizabeth I and began her plotting for the English throne. (Hopefully you’re all familiar with where that leads.)

In this case, “Reign,” or any historical series, should take a hint from the actual history of its subject. Sometimes the truth is far more interesting than fiction. A return to Scotland would mean losing many cast members, including the wonderful Megan Follows, who brilliantly portrays the poison-happy Catherine de Medici. Much of her fun sinisterness might be replaced by Rachel Skarsten, who has been cast as Elizabeth and set to appear in much of Season 3. And heck, since Bash is fictional, why not bring him along? “Reign” returns tonight addressing the issue of Francis’ illness, with press notes suggesting that Francis is on his “death bed.” It’s almost a death toll in and of itself for a show such as this to get rid of one of its attractive young men. But should “Reign” actually go through with it and kill the character off, it would be the best thing to happen to the show.

On to Scotland.

READ MORE: Review: ‘Marvel’s Daredevil’ Season 1 Brings Us as Close to ‘The Wire’ as Marvel Can Get

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