Queen sacrifice at Renaissance High: Catherine de’ Medici, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots ‘Reign’

One of the guiltier guilty pleasures of TV, along with the evolution of Don Johnson’s hair on “Miami Vice” reruns – Has there ever been a more beautiful man and more shades of blond? – is The CW’s “Reign,” the story of Mary, Queen of Scots played out as if an American high school were staging a Renaissance drama. There’s lots of mean girls and good-bad girls bemoaning manipulative guys whom they would seek to manipulate in turn. Everyone talks about “cahstles” and “Frahnce” in plummy Brit accents that are phonier than $3 bills – even though the series is set mostly in France and Catherine de’ Medici, Mary’s ever-hating mother-in-law, was Italian. (For some reason, everyone in the series pronounces it Meh DEACH ee, even though art historians pronounce it MEH de chee.)

The dialogue is so anachronistic that at one point, William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief adviser, tells her he’s aware of her distrust of the patriarchal system – a howler if there ever was one. First, Cecil would never have said anything of the kind. There was no patriarchal system. There were men. They were the system. And Elizabeth bought into it, even as she used it to beat men at the games they play.

More than the anachronistic spirit, though, the real failing of the show is a center that will not hold. As Mary and her husband, François II of France, Adelaide Kane and Toby Regbo are long-suffering and insufferable. Kane in particular plays Mary with all the earnestness of a high school senior running for student council president. She’s dreadful.

The good news in Season Three, which just began and continues on Fridays and online, is that Francis, as he is called, is about to kick the bucket, the series’ creators, having played fast and loose with history, deciding to honor it for once. (Never have I been so grateful to a middle-ear infection, which led to the brain abscess that took out poor Francis at the tender age of 16.) But this plays into The CW’s hand, allowing the netlet to move on to Mary’s disastrous marriages to Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell, for she was a heart-over-head girl if there ever was one.

The other good news is that in addition to the controlling Catherine (Megan Follows), the mother-in-law from Hell, goody-two-shoes Mary now has a nemesis of her own generation – cousin Elizabeth, who was most definitely a head-over-heart girl, even as she burned for her married childhood soul-mate, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Charlie Carrick). Here Rachel Skarsten has the better and, in some ways, easier task for in any story of Mary, Elizabeth is the villain, the foil – in modern parlance, the frenemy, just as in any story of Elizabeth, Mary is the weakling who couldn’t make it without a man. I’m looking forward to lots of scenes of Bess dallying with and dangling her “Sweet Robin,” as she called the devastatingly beautiful Dudley, and of her political chess game with Mary, which only one queen could win.

Is it any wonder it should be the woman who would love a man but not as much as her kingdom, her life’s work? Elizabeth was never immune to manly charms but her history – her mother, Anne Boleyn, lost her head literally to her father, Henry VIII – her prudent temperament and her precarious predicament as head of a newly Protestant island nation in a volatile time destined her to be a pragmatist.

Whereas Catholic Mary – having chosen the wrong second and third husbands, which cost her the Scottish crown and forced her to seek refuge in Elizabeth’s England – was a romantic. And a pragmatist trumps a romantic any day of the week and twice on Sunday. (See “Brokeback Mountain” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”)

In the end, Mary lost her head because she relied too much and none too well on men – a pitfall her Virgin Queen of a cousin avoided.

“Better beggar woman and single than queen and married,” Elizabeth said.

Her brains and courage enabled her to remain single, a queen and a singular queen at that.