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Amazon’s Irreverent Alt-History Tudor Fantasy

Amazon’s Irreverent Alt-History Tudor Fantasy

Amazon’s Irreverent Alt-History Tudor Fantasy

It’s probably fair to say that every single drama about the Tudor dynasty would like you to know it’s not like all those other dramas about the Tudor dynasty. This one is steamier, or more emotionally intimate; that one features nontraditional casting or focuses on a less famous figure. So I’ll say this for Prime Video‘s My Lady Jane: This one, really and truly, is not like the others. Sure, there are crowns and pretty ballgowns and cool sword fights and castles; as ever, the plot hinges on noble conspiracies and threats of beheading. But it also features a twist that sends it careening so far away from established reality, one wonders why it pretends to be about the Tudors at all.

Created by Gemma Burgess and based on the novel by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows, My Lady Jane brings into the spotlight a royal who’s frequently been relegated to a footnote, perhaps best known for the Delaroche painting, “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey.” In our universe, Jane Grey (Emily Bader) held the throne for a mere nine days after the death of her cousin, Edward VI (Jordan Peters), and was consequently executed once Mary I (Kate O’Flynn) took over. But this version of Jane is born of the idea that things didn’t have to be that way. Or, in the words of its punk-lite animated prologue: “Fuck that. What if history were different?”

My Lady Jane

The Bottom Line

Less a feminist alt-history than a puckish fantasy.

Airdate: Thursday, June 27 (Prime Video)
Cast: Emily Bader, Edward Bluemel, Rob Brydon, Dominic Cooper, Anna Chancellor, Jordan Peters, Kate O’Flynn, Henry Ashton, Jim Broadbent, Ollie Chris
Creator: Gemma Burgess, based on the book by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

Really, “different” doesn’t begin to describe it. A few minutes later, My Lady Jane reveals that it is less an alt-history than a full-on fantasy. The biggest split in 16th century England is not between Catholics and Protestants, but Verities, i.e., regular humans, and Ethians, a violently persecuted underclass of people who — pause for dramatic effect — have the ability to shapeshift into animals. While Jane is a Verity, her increasing sympathy for their cause will prove to be especially dangerous during her sudden and unexpected rise to power, especially once she lands in the crosshairs of the virulently anti-Ethian Mary.

My Lady Jane leans hard on the idea of Jane as an “intellectual rebel” who bucks against the conventions of her era (which really just means she falls right in line with the more recent stereotype of a Strong Female Character).

One of our earliest glimpses of her, in the Jamie Babbit-directed pilot, is from the POV of her maid’s crotch as a totally unfazed Jane treats it for a venereal disease. Her dream is to write a compendium of medicinal herbs, which she hopes might earn her enough money to live out the rest of her days in blissful singlehood.

Alas, her mother Frances (Anna Chancellor) has other ideas, and quickly marries her off to Guildford (Edward Bluemel), the rakish son of a prominent lord (Rob Brydon‘s Dudley). Though she demands a divorce basically from day one — “How modern,” retorts Guildford — it hardly takes a diehard romantic to guess that their obvious mutual attraction might complicate those plans.

But Jane isn’t the only part of My Lady Jane that eschews stuffy period-piece cliches. Its storytelling is puckish and irreverent, and eager to remind you that it’s puckish and irreverent.

An Alan Cumming-lite narrator (Ollie Chris) comments on every plot beat with slang-infused snark. The soundtrack is stuffed with female-led covers of iconic rock songs like “Rebel Rebel” and “Tainted Love.” The courtly intrigue frequently takes on a goofy, vulgar bent. Mary is portrayed as a vicious brat whose entire bid for power rests on the fact that Edward’s advisor Seymour (Dominic Cooper) can’t get enough of ye olde S&M play, while Frances gets all her best intel from younger noblemen who pop boners at the sight of her.

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If none of this is quite as edgy or uproarious as My Lady Jane seems to presume it is, the eight-hour season still serves up plenty of amusement. First and foremost, it never gets old watching a man turn into a horse, or a dog turn into a woman: it’s a swing so plainly bananas that I had to applaud the audacity every time. The comedy is bolstered by a cast willing to ham it up, whether it’s Chancellor putting on her most imperious face or Henry Ashton as Stan, Frances’ would-be suitor and Guildford’s brother, donning his most lovelorn one.

And while the narration is overused, the unnamed voice does get in some good cracks. “If therapists were invented in 1553, our brooding tortured hero would be a different man and this would be a different story,” he sighs in mock sympathy as Guildford mopes about a formative childhood trauma. “But they weren’t. And he isn’t. And it can’t be. So here we are.”

For all the talk of how uniquely brave and brilliant and empathetic Jane is, however, My Lady Jane lacks the substance to match. Jane and Guildford’s delicious sexual tension aside — Bader and Bluemel give great annoyed-but-turned-on face — none of the relationships run deep enough to provoke real emotion. At times, it’s difficult to tell if they’re even meant to be sincere.

Jane’s social justice mission rings hollow as well. Unlike, say, its Prime Video sibling The Boys, My Lady Jane has no interest in drawing direct parallels to our world. But it has little interest in the Ethians as their own culture or community, either, give or take a few supporting individuals like Jane’s erstwhile friend Susannah (Extraordinary‘s Máiréad Tyers). Jane plays the part of the righteous freedom fighter without any of the pesky complications of real history, but also without the gravitas that a more richly developed fictional universe might have provided.

My Lady Jane purports to be a feminist reimagining of “the ultimate damsel in distress,” one that empowers her to rewrite her own narrative as one of triumph rather than tragedy. To an extent, it succeeds. The series stuffs her brief starring turn in the English monarchy with enough romance and intrigue and excitement to fill several lifetimes, and makes the fitfully funny point that the elites of five hundred years ago might have been just as silly or raunchy or petty as any of us are now.

But somewhere in all this breathless reinterpreting, Jane Grey herself gets lost. Rather than expand on a life that could have been, My Lady Jane shoves her instead into someone else’s idea of a cheeky little fairy tale.

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