Royals are all the rage, with Kate, William and baby George splashed across the international media, and the CW network hopes American teens are ready for their own blue-blooded story about kings, queens and dynasties.
But will the genre-loving target audience be primed for a 16th century history-lite lesson in the form of "Reign," which has been dubbed a sanitized teen version of "The Tudors"?
The drama, launching Oct. 17, follows a young Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) as she leaves a country convent and heads to the French royal court, where an arranged marriage to Prince Francis awaits her. She'll also find sexy palace intrigue, a prickly mother-in-law and a handsome distraction, Francis' illegitimate half brother.
Because it's a period piece, normally cable TV's territory, "Reign" could well be one of the riskiest network shows of the fall season. And it hasn't been cheap to produce, said its executive producer Laurie McCarthy, though she declined to talk dollar figures. The drama is shooting its 13 episodes at two castles in Ireland and on elaborate soundstages in Canada.
The CW wanted "a cable-quality show" with sweeping landscapes and gorgeous costumes, McCarthy said. It happens to take place in the mid-1500s, based on historical figures, but it's a love (triangle) story, a tried-and-true winner for a network that counts "The Vampire Diaries" and "Arrow" among its hits.
"This isn't pretty girls in a castle, it's an ensemble drama where young people are battling, trying to do what's right for their families and their countries, trying to follow their hearts," McCarthy said. "The stakes in those days were incredibly high."
Critics have already taken issue with how loosely "Reign" seems to be based on historical fact. Francis, for instance, is a robust womanizer in the show, as portrayed by Toby Regbo, when in fact he was physically fragile and sickly. Nostradamus, advisor to Francis' mother and author of the famous book of prophesy, is young and hunky in "Reign" instead of fiftysomething and spooky. And Francis' bastard brother, Sebastian, played by "Tudors" alum Torrance Coombs? He never existed.
Adelaide Kane, the Australian actress who stars as Mary, defended the creative license taken in the series during a summer Television Critics Assn. panel in Beverly Hills.
"How many teenage girls do you know who are obsessed with history?" she asked. "I know I wasn't at that age."
She may have a point. History, either told faithfully or fictionalized, isn't at the top of young adults' reading, TV viewing or movie watching lists these days. Dystopias such as "The Hunger Games," horror films such as "The Conjuring," hybrids such as "True Blood" and "Twilight," superheroes, modern fairy tales and fantasies are hugely popular with this advertiser-coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
And feature films steeped in royalty haven't been successful in years, maybe not since 2001's "A Knight's Tale." More recent entries such as "Marie Antoinette," "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "The Three Musketeers" in 3-D with heartthrob Orlando Bloom barely registered with teens and young adults.
"Reign" does tip its hat to some current trends, executive producer McCarthy said, with supernatural, horror and fantasy elements. And in other teen-appeal moves, its contemporary soundtrack includes the folk rock band the Lumineers, and its females are feisty and outspoken.
Unlike pay-cable forerunners such as "The Tudors" and "The Borgias," "Reign" is a soapy bodice ripper without nudity. Yet it features a teenage girl masturbating in the pilot, which McCarthy said passed the network's censors.
Trend watchers said the millennial generation — those born after 1980 — may not know or care that "Reign" has a historical basis. They may be drawn to its escapism and universal themes of love, seduction and betrayal.
Jane Buckingham, president of Trendera, a consulting and trend forecasting company, recently screened "Reign" for a test female audience of 16- to 20-year-olds, with the majority responding favorably but not committing to watch regularly. The show could be "a big win or a big loss" for the network, she said.
"It's 'Gossip Girl' meets 'Game of Thrones,'" Buckingham said. "Every girl wants to be a princess and marry a prince, so it has that aspirational feel. And it's like a piece of cake in someone's viewing diet."
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