Stream It Or Skip It?

It’s all too easy for a period show to fall into familiar rhythms, with women in corsets and wigs and men in slacks dancing and talking politely in very baroque language. But the most successful period shows avoid this and give these characters modern dialogue and demeanor. A new series on Starz about Catherine de’ Medici’s ascension to the throne of France is doing just that.

Opening shot: A woman dressed as a servant wakes up with a start. “Are you the one they call ‘It’?” asks another servant. “I have a name,” she said.

The essential: The servant, Rahima (Sennia Nanua), is sent to the chambers of the Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici (Samantha Morton) as more or less a sacrificial lamb, as she has a reputation for being cruel to the staff. But at first, it seems the queen is taking a liking to Rahima; it is 1560 and his son Charles IX is about to be crowned king. She misses all the hype and wants someone to talk to. Because she sees herself in young Rahima, she begins to tell her story.

In 1536, a young Catherine (Liv Hill), born in Italy and orphaned when her parents die of syphilis and her grandmother also dies mysteriously, is snatched from her orphanage by her uncle, Pope Clement (Charles Dance), for the sole purpose of marrying her to Henry (Alex Heath), the second son of France’s King Francis (Colm Meaney). He thinks Catherine is a mess who needs a major shine before introducing her to French royalty, it’s still important that she gets married, in order to keep the peace between the two countries. Even Catherine knows what’s at stake, declaring that her initial makeover “wasn’t enough” and demanding that the Pope increase his valet’s budget.

When they meet, they get along well. “I fell in love,” young Catherine tells the camera. She even thinks her cousin Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier), who was a surrogate mother for Harry, was a good influence. But that all changes after their much-watched consumption on their wedding night; it is then that Catherine discovers that she is going to have a difficult road as Harry’s wife.

The Serpent Queen
Photo: Starz

What shows will this remind you of? The Serpent Queen gives vibrations similar to Become Elizabethanother period show on Starz from earlier this year.

Our opinion : Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) adapted the non-fiction book Catherine de Medici: Queen of France during the Renaissance by Leonie Frieda to create The Serpent Queenand he decides to avoid the usual stuffiness of period pieces in order to really communicate how ruthless Catherine was.

How is it? By giving his Renaissance characters modern dialogue, having young Catherine break the fourth wall, and simply playing on the idea that she was a very intelligent person who played against him the weaknesses of the system in which she found herself. This is evident in the scenes with young Catherine, who might not have liked being sold to another country willy-nilly, but once she realized she was in this situation, she took full advantage.

The first episode shows much more of young Catherine – and Liv Hill communicates that Catherine’s mind was still working, even at a young age – than we see of Morton’s middle-aged Catherine. But in the few scenes with Morton that we see, we see how the years have made her even more cunning and suspicious. Does she like that she had to play along and be treated like a side of beef instead of a human being with a brain? Of course not. But play the game she made, and we can’t wait to see how Catherine, young and old, will work around any obstacles that might prevent her from ascending the throne and maintaining the line of succession in her family.

Sex and skin: There’s definitely skin and simulated sex in the scenes, even though the wedding night drinking scene was fully clothed. We expect to see more sex and skin.

Farewell shot: Catherine, citing that she doesn’t trust anyone, has Rahima thrown into a cell, but Rahima is happy when she finds an orange in her pocket. Catherine sees the orange she was eating and seems satisfied to have found a new confidant.

Sleeping Star: Kiruna Staell plays Mathilde, who ends up being the fool in Catherine’s suite. We liked when she said to the pope, “I could pass gas and people would find it funny.”

The most pilot line: The Pope tells Catherine that she must be a blank canvas as a bride and do whatever her husband wants. “If he wants you to sodomize him with his mother’s hairbrush, you will.” Boy, the pope was very specific there, wasn’t he?

Our call: SPREAD IT. The Serpent Queen has just enough irreverence to make what could have been a boring period story much more interesting, emphasizing Catherine de’ Medici’s cunning rather than being primitive and appropriate.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and technology, but he’s not fooling himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.comQuick

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