‘My Lady Jane’ Has the Wildest TV Twist of the Year

[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for a big twist in “My Lady Jane,” which is revealed about 10 minutes into Episode 1.]

Watching the trailer for “My Lady Jane,” the pseudo-feminist alt-Tudor history show based on the bestselling 2016 YA novel of the same name, you’d be forgiven for assuming the plot.

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In real life, Lady Jane Grey, alongside her husband Guildford Dudley, was executed months after a mere nine days on the throne in 1553. In the opening seconds of the Prime Video show, the modern British narrator of “My Lady Jane” asks: “What if history were different?”

What if, indeed. Instead of immediate death, in the first few moments of the show teenage Jane (newcomer Emily Bader) is a smart medical gal, curing her friend’s 16th century STI. She’s then told she’ll have to marry for a political alliance. Instead, she grabs her maid, Susannah (Máiréad Tyers), and attempts to make a run for it. The duo are immediately caught, and while Jane will just be returned to her family, poor Susannah is tackled by guards and told she’ll be sentenced to death for stealing. But instead, she instantly transforms into a bird and flies away.

You probably have a lot of questions. I sure did!

No, there has been absolutely no indication leading up to that moment that this was an option. Yes, Jane knew that some people could turn into animals, but she did NOT know Susannah was one of them. No, the CGI isn’t very good, and no, the trailer for the show gives no indication that this is a major — perhaps the most major — plot point. (If you don’t count “Wild Thing” playing in the background, which I do not.)

But her servant isn’t the only one who randomly turns into an animal on occasion. Many, many characters do, including Jane’s new husband Guildford (Edward Bluemel).

Guildford turns into a horse when the sun is up each day (he’s a regular human man at night, allowing he and Jane to make out to their hearts’ content). If people were to learn this inconvenient fact, he and Jane would be killed, because in this version of Tudor England, the shapeshifters are known as Ethians, in what is presumably a metaphor for Protestants, though the internal logic is dicey at best. (Some Ethians can transform at will, some can’t, a few, because of trauma?, never do.)

Dominic Cooper and Rob Brydon chewing scenery in ‘My Lady Jane’
Dominic Cooper and Rob Brydon chewing scenery in ‘My Lady Jane’

ANYWAY. Obviously, magical events happen in a fantasy series. The weird wrinkle of “My Lady Jane” is that the anamorph situation is the only fantasy element at play. Everything else is palace intrigue and shifting political alliances once King Edward is presumed dead. In practice, that means viewers jump from Dominic Cooper and Rob Brydon arguing with each other about succession, and then the very next moment, a man transforms into a bear in a bar.

The show, created by Gemma Burgess and directed by Stefan Schwartz and Jamie Babbit, is being marketed as a “romantasy,” the massive subgenre of fantasy/romance books that typically involve hooking up on or near or with a dragon. This show doesn’t quite fit that mold — it swaps out some brooding darkness for a more upbeat “Ella Enchanted” vibe — and despite a concerted effort by all involved, it can’t quite pack the heat of a more grown-up fantasy experience. Which is fine! Not all programs need to be “Game of Thrones,” though one suspects the audience here is probably looking for a more traditional royal romantic spin a la the occasionally anachronistic “Bridgerton.”

Giving historical dramas a more arch tone has become quite the trend (executed best by Tony McNamara’s “The Great”), but thanks to the animals, “My Lady Jane” too often falls into downright silliness that makes one wonder why this story mentions real people at all. In one climactic scene, Jane is chased out of the palace by usurpers, and a rival army meets her at the drawbridge. Things are looking bleak, and there’s no one around to help this damsel in distress. But then Jane looks up and sees a literal horse come charging through the forest to save her. “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac is playing in the background. Oh, you know that horse is Guildford.

I burst out laughing. The show has its moments of frothy fun — especially if you don’t think too hard about anything — but the inconsistent tone melding alongside the bevy of wild animals kills any emotional stakes. I congratulate anyone who can watch a horse husband attempt to save his human lady love and feel the romantic yearning the show was clearly attempting. When asking viewers to think “happily ever after” while watching silly CGI shapeshifters take center screen, you’re putting one hell of a cart before the horse.

“My Lady Jane” Season 1 is streaming now on Prime Video.

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