A new crop of TV shows proves we’ll never be over the royals
“Yaas Queen.” It’s one of the most overplayed phrases right now, often used to comment on actresses and singers in their prime. As it turns out, these two words couldn’t be more culturally appropriate today amidst our obsession with monarchy: Will and Kate’s dreamsicle marriage is a multibillion-dollar hashtag; nobility are still hunted by the tabloids and tabblogs; and more than 40 Twitter accounts chronicle the whereabouts of every duke, duchess and Harry in the United Kingdom.
This royal flush has crept onto the small screen and networks are enjoying a new group of loyal subjects because of it. Riding the screen queens trend is an undeniably addictive drama called Reign. When announced, the series—which focuses on Mary, Queen of Scots’ turbulent days in the French court during the mid-1500s—seemed poised to be as frightfully long-winded as a BBC documentary on Stonehenge. But it isn’t. At all. It takes dazzling and sensational liberties with history (in the pilot, a lady-in-waiting masturbates after spying on a married couple having sex). Not to mention the show’s writers and producers have injected a Melrose Place/The Sopranos sucker punch to episodes that have spurred a legion of queen memes. The result is witty dialogue and plots that are thrilling and unapologetically soapy. The drama of crumbling empires doesn’t hold a candle to the sex scenes, which make Fifty Shades of Grey seem very PBS.
“It also has the bones of tragedy,” says creator Laurie McCarthy of her series. “Any time someone is born into something—as opposed to choosing it—they become beautiful tigers in a cage.” Filmed partially in Toronto’s grand Casa Loma, as well as in palatial estates scattered around Ireland, Reign’s scenes and costumes are as outlandish as the show’s scheming characters. Toronto-born actress Rachel Skarsten, who plays a backbiting Queen Elizabeth I on Reign, says the episodes are so alluring because “almost every personal decision can affect the livelihood of a whole country.” The show is a far cry from Keeping Up With the Kardashians (which has lost almost half its viewers since last year). “Every reality show plot pales in comparison to our history,” says Skarsten. “When you take liberties with it, for a TV series like this, it lures viewers and even educates them.”
Yet the question remains: If we’re already familiar with the tales of Queens Catherine, Elizabeth and Mary, why are we so collectively invested? McCarthy suspects it’s because of the political climate today. “In the U.S., we’ve been watching the rise and fall and rise of Hillary Clinton. Seeing the battles she’s up against…you can’t help but draw parallels.” Canadian actress Megan Follows, who once played the iconic Anne Shirley in the screen adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, plays the protective and manipulative Catherine de’ Medici, who falls in and out of favour with the court. Some critics say Follows’ nuanced performance is very Clinton-esque (minus the beheadings).
“What’s fascinating about [that] time—and our times—are these swaying political forces,” says Follows. “Obviously when you have a Catholic country, and the rise of the Protestants threatens the power of the church, things get messy. Our world is influenced by those same types of forces we see on the show.” Follows cites the feminist debates in pop culture as one of the reasons why Reign is so current. “If a woman is powerful, we can tarnish it with the ‘She’s a bitch’ brush. For her male counterpart, they might be considered outrageous. It’s a way to diminish a woman,” she says. “This show does the opposite. In terms of the most intricate or emotional scenes, they’re given to women; they are running things.”
While throughout TV history monarchs have seemed to have more in common with raging opera sopranos than world leaders, Skarsten says Reign’s Elizabeth is a woman who is vulnerable and strong, noble and deceitful. “There is a concerted effort that we don’t go the usual way—that we don’t show the untouchable sides we often see in the portrayal of female leaders,” she says. “Queens are usually written as these one-dimensional monsters who don’t really have any sex lives or love lives…Catherine, Mary and Elizabeth are people with insecurities and limitations. The women here are just fighting this archaic system that is trying to keep them down.”
In contrast, The Royals focuses on the lives of a fictionalized, modern-day version of Britain’s golden family. It airs on E! Network (the channel that made the Kardashians famous) and is the only scripted drama produced on the hub so far. The series makes up for the lack of plot most reality shows are known for by staying away from over-medicated housewives and focusing instead on three generations of women played by Elizabeth Hurley (Queen Helena), Joan Collins (The Grand Duchess) and newcomer Alexandra Park (Princess Eleanor). Like Reign, the most interesting episodes explore the type of complex relationship these women have—true to today’s 21st-century family dysfunction.
Australian-born Park describes her drug-addled, McQueen-wearing character as a “messy train wreck with a heart of gold. She can be incredibly vulnerable at times, but she can also put up this badass superwoman act.” The Royals’ has a growing social media fan base, and the carefully chosen costumes are what drive Park’s character home. “Fashion is very reflective of the characters’ personalities,” she says. “Eleanor uses the most expensive tactics to look as cheap as she can. When she kicks her shit into gear, she’ll wear leather—like a woman on a mission.”
The Royals’ plots are just as extreme as the frocks. Park thinks the fever for the show stems from the fact that children are given an unrealistic view of how the majestic set lives. “Reaching back as far as fairy tales and Disney, royal families are supposed to be discreet and noble,” she says. “It’s a secret society of epic people who wear epic clothes and live epic lives, but what happens when one falls apart?” Park’s character is the wildest child of the pack and had many speculating that Prince Harry was the inspiration behind the performance. “No, but I can see why people might think that,” she says, with a laugh.
Netflix is getting in on the royal gold as well, investing about $400 million in The Crown, a dramatic series (due to launch in May) that depicts the early years of Queen Elizabeth II. Next year Victoria, a new series on Queen Victoria, will take Downton Abbey’s coveted time slot on BBC. This rise in royal productions doesn’t surprise Reign maker McCarthy at all. “Television has changed enormously over the last decade,” she notes. “It feels very egalitarian now. Look at the amount of women in high-level positions at networks. After years of seeing men in these kinds of roles, why wouldn’t we want to see female leaders on the screen, too?”