On Popcorn Television

I watch a lot of television. I may not actually own a television, but like much of my generation, I’ve taken advantage of the numerous options like Hulu and individual network sites to make sure I keep up with television. Part of that is work-related: as a pop culture critic, I need to be aware of what is going on so that I can write about it, talk about it in context, and discuss television trends. Part of that is also a matter of personal preference: I like watching television, which is why I have a job writing about it, and I enjoy television as a storytelling medium.

I love the fact that television allows creators to explore, long, complex, interconnected stories that are too long for a single film to encompass. I love the depth of great television: The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica. I love what a cultural touchstone television has become and I enjoy picking it to pieces, talking about social themes, exploring embedded commentaries, and talking about issues in modern television, from lack of diversity to the mishandling of disability. I love the simple art of television, talking about stylistic and aesthetic decisions in lights, sets, costuming.

But I am also not ashamed to admit that I like popcorn television, by which I mean shows that I watch purely because they are fun and enjoyable for me. I watch popcorn television with my brain off, not in active analytic mode, although occasionally it rises to the surface anyway and I make a sharp comment or two. For me, it almost provides a mode of cognitive reset, allowing me to rebalance my brain and think about the world anew, in a way that feels fresh and distinctive. Popcorn television, much like popcorn novels, can vary in nature for the individual consumer, but the end goal is the same.

For me, my current popcorn show is CW’s Reign, a vaguely historical account of the early years of Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s vaguely historical in the sense that there’s a character in it called Mary, Queen of Scots, and several of the people in it are based on actual historical figures. If you’re expecting something with a detailed attention to historical accuracy, though, think again; dates and places are shifted, costumes are wildly unrealistic, behaviours are highly unlikely, and the whole drama is really not very true to life.

But that’s okay, because it’s popcorn television. It’s not supposed to be highly realistic. Much like The Tudors, the goal is not to educate the viewer and to provide information about a very real world, but rather to present a drama dressed up in pseudo-historical trappings, and I love every wildly anachronistic minute of it. I especially love that it’s a drama about a woman who’s been sort of shunted to the backyard of history. Mary, Queen of Scots never really rose to her potential because she was constantly suppressed and controlled by the people around her, despite the fact that she was an excellent negotiator, a canny planner, and a very strong, creative, independent woman. Ultimately, though, she lived in an era when it was difficult for women to obtain command, let alone hold it; her cousin (and ultimate undoing) Elizabeth I accomplished by sheer force of will what Mary could not.

But Reign isn’t about Mary’s darker years at the mercy of the English court. It’s about frocks and froth and silliness in France, for all that the show tries to drum up tension and dramas between Mary, her vying suitors, and her ladies, stuck in France with her and bitter at being far from home even as they are eager to serve the queen. There’s also the obligatory creepy supernatural plot, spearheaded by Nostradamus, who looms around like a great big bat in flapping dark robes, whispering into the ears of the French queen to remind her that Mary is bad news bears.

What I love about Reign is that it’s so blatantly ridiculous that it’s really hard to not just relax and have fun watching it. If you’re the sort who is deeply offended by historical anachronisms and wild inaccuracy, you’re going to hate it, unless you can pretend it’s pure fiction with characters who happen to be coincidentally named like real historical figures. But if you enjoy this kind of popcorn television, you might find that Reign is utterly delightful.

There are all sorts of ridiculous intrigues, with characters creeping around in hallways and doing all sorts of nefarious things (some of which definitely did occur at the real French court, because people will be people and people do love illicit affairs), along with fancy balls, intriguing food, rousing scenes of horses galloping across landscapes, and all sorts of entertaining things. The characters are actually surprisingly lively and individualistic, and I find myself drawn into their lives and their dramas even as I sometimes want to berate them for being total jerks to each other, and I am a sucker for a good fake historical accent (you know the accent I’m talking about…the ‘I’m using a weird accent to convey the fact that I am in 16th century France and yet mysteriously speaking English’ accent).

The thing about popcorn television is that you can’t expect too much of it. The point here is not to be engaged in deep, complex television that really has something to say about society. Rather, it’s to have fun. And sometimes, even the most engaged pop culture lovers need to do that, because astonishingly, being at work all the time isn’t healthy.