The Great begins each of its 10 episodes by brazenly telling you that it is “an occasionally true story.” I denied my instinct to search Wikipedia for Catherine the Great, the show’s alleged historical subject, until I’d finished the first season. I was glad I waited.
The Great so frequently and drastically diverts from the record that it would be more accurate to call this dark comedy “historical fiction” than “docu-drama.” The show’s attitude to history is like an excitable kid at a buffet, leaving what she doesn’t care for, grabbing the interesting bits, and mixing them all together. So, in the spirit of the show itself, I’m going to ignore history entirely, and tell you that you might want to check out The Great on Hulu. It’s entertaining and interesting—if far from perfect.
The series starts with a teenage Catherine (Elle Fanning, previously Aurora of the Sleeping Beauty deconstruction Maleficent) of “Germany,” going to Russia to enact her marriage with current Emperor Peter in seventeen-hundred-and-something. (Again, the history is almost intentionally terrible.) She imagines a fairy tale wedding and a new world of love and culture but arrives to find Peter (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men‘s younger Beast and Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Nux) a boorish and casually cruel tyrant in the middle of a bumbling war. She’s barely off the carriage before the palace’s Russian Orthodox bishop, doing his best Rasputin impression, weds her offscreen, and her childhood is brought to an instant chilling end.
Catherine finds many enemies and few allies in the court of Peter. Her servant Marial (Phoebe Fox, Curfew) is a former court lady turned bitter and sarcastic by being lowered in class in punishment for her father’s behavior. Grigory Orlov (Sacha Dhawan, Iron Fist), the bookish politician and only member of the court that can match Catherine’s interest in modern culture and philosophy, is eager for change but unwilling to act. The rest of cast either revels in Peter’s mean-spirited debauchery or merely tolerates it, like his best friend whose wife he constantly beds.
The Great takes its web-exclusive nature to heart, with vicious violence, ribald sexuality, and enough F-bombs in every episode to make Tarantino blush. At first, this seems novel, contrasting the somewhat stuffy period piece looks with language and action that seem at home in The Sopranos. But hearing repetitive profanity in more or less every exchange of dialogue is tiring, as is some of the more intentionally gruesome violence, like seeing court dandies pluck the eyes out of dead soldiers with bare fingers. Even so, Hoult’s portrayal of Peter makes you want to keep watching just to see what ridiculous antics he’ll pull next. Imagine if Bart Simpson could have people flayed alive for looking at his Butterfingers.
Through 10 episodes, Catherine transforms from doe-eyed damsel to ruthless revolutionary, planning out a coup with her few friends and trying to stay alive long enough to start it. She’s suddenly found herself in a country ruled by an infantile idiot whose depravity and vanity is matched only by his incompetence, squatting atop a system that seems powerless to do anything but tolerate his constant mania. For Hulu’s mostly American audience, she’s an easy character to sympathize with, even as she’s trying to overthrow a country and an entrenched class system.
Though I found the blue dialogue wearing thin over the episodes, and The Great has a bad habit of telling rather than showing the characters’ motivations and emotional states, it was hard to stop watching. After an hour or two of Peter’s over-the-top behavior, I wanted to see Catherine’s plan come to fruition, even if I didn’t entirely believe her desire to empower and educate a serfdom she’s barely ever seen.
Some of the side characters, notably her court-assigned gigolo (Sebastian De Souza) and Peter’s flighty but iron-willed aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow, as a character who in real life was an actual Russian empress), are played with skill and nuance. If the scope of the production isn’t exactly HBO, at least what few sets and costumes it has are excellent. Peter’s meeting with the king of Sweden, suing for peace after a costly war, is a standout episode. The contrast of the nobility’s depraved behavior and their elegant set pieces is a visual version of the joke that ends with “the aristocrats.”
Creator Tony McNamara is dipping his toes into yet another female-dominated high society historical story, after 2018’s Oscar-winning The Favourite. The story builds to a will-they-won’t-they in more ways than one. I’ll give no spoilers here, other than to say that the writers are clearly depending on an as-yet unannounced second season. After devouring the first season in three days, I have to say that I hope they get it.