TV Review: “The Great”

“The Great” doesn’t care about history, and neither should you.

From creator of “The Favourite” Tony McNamara comes another historical retelling that slides right out of the conventions typically associated with the period drama genre into a terribly clever, terrifically dark piece of its own. “The Great” covers Russian empress Catherine the Great’s rise to power as a teenage girl ⁠— with some massive liberties. The show neatly balances the courtly decadence and subtle power plays of “The Favourite” with the blood, sex, and quick wit that’s to be expected in a world where all historical dramas must compete to be the next “Game of Thrones.” Nevertheless, it’s a well-maintained balance. Heavily stylized, effortlessly witty, and maybe a bit needlessly obscene, “The Great” is a show that knows exactly what it is, whether or not that has anything to do with actual history.  

The show begins with German teenager Catherine (Elle Fanning), who has come to Russia to marry a man she has never met –– Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). An idealist and intellectual caught up in the wave of Europe’s Enlightenment, Catherine has big plans for her new home, and she is disappointed to find a court more concerned with hunting, sex, and booze than discussing the latest Voltaire. With Catherine caught between her own idealism and the darker waves of discontent within the court, there seems to be one obvious way to create the Russia she wants: lead a coup and murder her husband. 

On the surface, this matches up well enough with history, although even a cursory glance at Wikipedia shows that anything beyond a barebones description of the show is pure fiction. However, “The Great” revels in its own inaccuracies, appropriately subtitled “an occasionally true story.” Refreshingly, this pointed lack of interest in history allows the show to take liberties period pieces rarely do, including its tongue-in-cheek tone and its freedom to develop characters and plot lines however they wish. McNamara also used color blind casting, which allowed actors of color to feature in major roles within the royal court instead of being relegated to the background, as they so often are in the genre.

Fanning’s and Hoult’s performances as the unhappy couple are equally compelling and hilarious. Fanning’s Catherine is stunning and headstrong –– her early portrayal may frustrate audiences with her naivety, but she also inspires with her compassion and idealism. “The Great” allows us to watch her grow from a child to a woman of great political cunning within this harsh world she’s stepped into –– but always on her terms. 

Hoult, in contrast, is all comedy, and perhaps the show’s biggest selling point. Peter is hilarious, petty, and nearly child-like, yet often shocking with his out-of-proportion brutality. Still, Hoult’s performance almost gives you hope for the character, even after his atrocities. 

The show, whose foundation is built around how badly these people fit into each other’s worlds, is at its absolute best when the two characters clash. Both begin as naive in their own way, with Catherine a genuine innocent and Peter still convinced that the world is his plaything, and their brutal back-and-forth of both admiration and hatred is easily the core of the show’s ten episodes. This core is reinforced, by a well-developed supporting cast. “The Great” establishes side characters’ private storylines and personal ambitions with the easy comedy of an ensemble-based sitcom, and it’s only when the show’s political wheels really start to turn that it becomes clear that what they’ve really been doing is laying out a chessboard. But don’t let that fool you –– at the end of the day, this is Catherine’s story, and the final moments are all hers. 

Still, the show is not without its flaws –– at the risk of sounding prudish, the series’ dark humor sometimes relies too heavily on its lewdness. There’s some degree to which the obscenity feels appropriate to juxtaposing the show’s obscene world against the sheltered Catherine. And then, to another degree, it’s just funny. Nevertheless, there are only so many times you can watch Peter give detailed accounts of sexual exploits before feeling like the writers just didn’t know what else to do. “The Great” is also annoyingly guilty of the all-too-common “all Europeans have British accents” fallacy so many shows seem to fall into, though this is a small offense. 

Overall, “The Great” juggles its material well, managing history with modern aesthetic tastes, mixing darkness with humor, and balancing its often stunning visuals with an occasional unapologetic gruesomeness oddly well. History fan or not, “The Great” is well worth the watch.

Grade: B+
Creator: Tony McNamara
Starring: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan
Release date: May 15, 2020 on Hulu
Rated: TV-MA

Image courtesy of Den of Greek.