History be damned. And that's no joke, though the show sometimes feels like one. The CW's Reign (Thursday, 9/8c) is all about herstory, an opulent and giddy bodice-ripper very loosely inspired by the teenage years of the ultimately ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots (a pouty Adelaide Kane). It's like Masterpiece Junior as seen on MTV after a jolt of Red Bull, or more to the point, Gossip Girl goes to court. And while it will win no prizes for scholarly accuracy (to put it mildly), Reign is such a fanciful folly of royal romance and literally poisonous court gossip that it's hard not to hail a CW show that breaks so lavishly from the network's usual formula of angst-ridden ghouls and cloying rom-com.
It opens with a bloody "get thee from a nunnery" crisis as Mary abruptly ends her youthful exile in an idyllic convent after her taster ends up face down in some tainted porridge. With a relentless rock soundtrack urging her on, Mary's off to the treacherous French court, where she spent part of her wee years palling around with future king and now future husband (if the alliance between countries holds) Francis, a bland blond played by Toby Regbo, who's instantly upstaged by his more dashing fictional bastard half-brother Sebastian (Torrance Coombs). It's Stefan and Damon all over again, minus the fangs. With a gaggle of boy-hungry gal-pal ladies-in-waiting to keep her company, Mary is soon hearing voices behind walls and fending off threats to her royal future. There's an evil queen, of course (Megan Follows, a world away from Anne of Green Gables), whose vanity and jealousy may not be reflected in a magic mirror but are reinforced by the dire predictions of a hunky Nostradamus (Rossif Sutherland, half-brother of Kiefer for those keeping track).
Even though many will find this brand of overripe melodrama as silly as the indelible "Death of Mary Queen of Scots" sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus, I can't help but root a little for such a zany risk. Warning, though, to the target audience: Do not use Reign as a basis to write your World History term papers. Unless you want it to be raining "F"s.
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ORANGE IS THE NEW WHITE: But not for long, as USA Network's enjoyable eye-candy caper series White Collar returns for a fifth season (9/8c) with its FBI hero Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) behind bars, jailed for the murder Neal's dad committed before skipping town. This prosecute-the-good-guy storyline is never my favorite, and the good news is that the real story of the new season involves the price Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) pays in his attempt to clear his buddy/handler/mentor's name. It involves a deal with the devil — rather literally, given that Supernatural hell spawn Mark Sheppard is back as the "Dutchman" art forger Curtis Hagen, the conduit to Neal's ambivalent return to the con game, which happens to coincide with Mozzie (Willie Garson) having finally figured out how to "crack the anklet." As Neal begins a new slippery slope of deceit, Peter understandably has to confront his own trust issues while figuring out his future. This season is off to a strong start.
Because Thursdays aren't busy enough, USA is pairing White Collar with another of its most appealing series, Covert Affairs, which resumes its fourth season after a month's hiatus, moving to one of the week's most crowded time periods (10/9c, opposite Scandal, Elementary and, yes, Parenthood). Thanks, USA. There's good reason to watch, though, as Annie (Piper Perabo) is now off the grid, presumed dead by all but her inner circle as she goes deep undercover, truly solo for the first time.
WORLD WAR Z: You can hardly blame Discovery's Mythbusters for climbing aboard the zombie bandwagon, given those staggering numbers for Sunday's season premiere of The Walking Dead. In a very "zombie special" (10/9c), Walking Dead alum Michael Rooker helps the Mythbusters team work out essential zombie issues including whether an ax or a gun is most effective when tackling the undead. If you're the type who'd just as soon cut and run, they also oblige by testing whether it's truly possible to outpace a horde.
In a similar but theoretically less fantastical vein, Discovery gives voice to those taking the end of days much more seriously in the hour special Apocalypse Preppers (9/8c), examining different survival strategies depending on whether we'll meet our match from a new biological plague, alien invasion or a technological robot rebellion.
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: How close is too close for comfort? It's an issue for Sheldon on CBS's The Big Bang Theory (8/7c), when Amy starts working at his university, and for Raj, when Howard takes over his couch at home after fighting with Bernadette. ... Most recently seen as a doomed shape-shifter on True Blood, Janina Gavinkar arrives on the CW's The Vampire Diaries (8/7c) as the mysterious Tessa, who puts a temporary halt to the search for Stefan with her flashbacks and secrets. ... Multiple guest-star alert: Orphan Black's sensational Tatiana Maslany appears on NBC's Parks and Recreation as Tom's new love interest. (She can do better.) ... It's a Desperate Housewives reunion on NBC's endangered Welcome to the Family (8:31/7:31c) when Eva Longoria guests as a sixth-grade teacher who's a former flame of family man Miguel (Ricardo Chavira). ... Tony winner Laura Benanti (Go On), whose recent 54 Below cabaret recording is a must-have, plays a woman from Sherlock's past on CBS's Elementary (10:01/9:01c), who's implicated in the poisoning death of a CEO.
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