There’s something a little wicked about an anachronistic romp through history. The period drama is often upheld as the height of sophistication, the kind of genre that radiates prestige and award-winning costume designs. So when you pair that with raunchy dialogue and a sharp satirical edge that punches through the costume drama veneer like a poison-tipped sabre, it all feels so naughty.
Tony McNamara seems to be making a habit out of these kind of historical indiscretions. The Oscar-winning writer of The Favourite has penned a new satirical take on a historical figure with the Hulu comedy series The Great, which chronicles the “occasionally true” rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), from naïve outsider to the most famous female ruler in Russian history. Just like the Yorgos Lanthimos 2018 black comedy that earned McNamara an Oscar, The Great is a cheeky comedy that lacerates the stodgy period drama as we come to accept it — yes, the show is all heaving bosoms and displays of decadence, but they say fuck and they fuck a lot. But while The Great may have its tongue firmly in its cheek (and in, um, other places), it lacks some of the teeth of The Favourite, even as McNamara recycles some of the character dynamics from his script — right down to the maid who comes from aristocracy, and a lady in waiting in bed with the ruler. Also there are so many rabbits.
The Great moves through the early years of Catherine’s marriage to the cruel ruler Peter III (Nicholas Hoult, having a blast as an erratic gadabout) with a twinkle in its eye, but the series settles into the comfortable trappings of a straightforward period drama rather quickly. It’s not too much of a surprise — the series couldn’t be expected to maintain that level of farce while trying to tell a compelling story about how a young Catherine transforms from a cheery German princess to a savvy ruler who conspires to pull off a coup d’état that will unseat her mercurial husband. But despite the many episodes that The Great dedicates to charting this arc, it’s not entirely successful either.
The Great begins with 19-year-old Catherine arriving in Russia to marry Emperor Peter III, filled with romantic dreams and idealistic visions of her new husband. But she is rudely awakened by Peter’s decadent lifestyle and obvious idiocy, as well as his petty and equally idiotic court. Quickly disillusioned with her new life and feeling like a bookish outsider in a materialistic court, she resolves to kill herself. But Catherine is stopped by her cunning maid Marial (a scene-stealing Phoebe Fox), a former disgraced aristocrat, who suggests that the great and progressive ruler that Catherine dreamed of might actually be herself.
The series follows Catherine as she makes allies in the court and stumbles her way through planning a coup. While Fanning is fantastic in the role and proves to be remarkably adept at cringe comedy, the writing for Catherine makes it hard to believe she would be at all a qualified ruler. Aside from pointing out her love of philosophy and art, Catherine’s relentless optimism becomes a thorn in the show’s side — great for comedy, but not great for convincing us of the character’s growth. The Great suffers from Armando Ianucci syndrome; it wants to treat the characters like laughable goons half the time, and it wants us to take them seriously as admirable figures the other half of the time. These competing tones wouldn’t be quite so noticeable if the series didn’t have an overly long episode run — at 10 episodes, The Great starts to sag in the middle, when its more serious tone results in a dull few episodes. But the later episodes are able to renew the absurd comedic energy that the show started off with. The biggest reason for the middle-episode slump can be attributed to the unappealing romance which McNamara decides to center the series around.
As a historical figure, Catherine the Great was known for her string of powerful lovers, so it was to be expected for Fanning’s young Catherine to gain a lover of her own — this one gifted to her by Peter, who obnoxiously assumes that her unhappiness is due to their bad sex. Insulted at first by this “gift,” Catherine is soon charmed by the handsome Leo (a slightly smarmy Sebastian De Souza) and falls in love with him. As attractive as Fanning and De Souza are, the relationship is predictably by the books for a historical drama, and threatens takes the wind out of the entire series. The series manages to right itself with plenty of ghoulish humor — mostly provided by the twisted trio of Peter, his best friend Grigor (Gwilym Lee), and Grigor’s wife and Peter’s mistress Georgina (Charity Wakefield). The three of them are a chaotic force of energy that bring The Great back to its depraved comedy that McNamara is known for. Hoult especially is a delight to watch, completely in his element playing the buffoonish psycho. Sacha Dhawan is also a standout as the court intellectual and one of Catherine’s first allies, Lord Orlo — his equally timid and ridiculous performance managing to strike that perfect tonal balance that the show itself struggles with.
But despite some of the tonal and pacing issues of The Great, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable historical comedy, if a bit lighter on the satire than expected. The editing is brisk, the grotesque scenes of debauchery are darkly funny, and the royal scheming is pretty compelling stuff — with McNamara dipping into his Favourite bag as inspiration for the catty rivalries that Catherine makes. It may not be unquestionably great, but it’s certainly a grand old time.
The Great premieres on Hulu on May 15, 2020.
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