The Great straddles the line between period drama and slapstick comedy with acrobatic ease

  • Hulu's "an occasionally true story" of Catherine the Great, created by The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara, "immediately frees itself of the usual period drama obligation to connect the historical dots," says Caroline Framke. "Instead, it goes for more of an accurate vibe than a completely faithful retelling of a notoriously tumultuous time in Russian history: the six months between when a 19 year-old Catherine (executive producer Elle Fanning) married the country’s new emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult), and the moment she overthrew him to have the throne to herself." Framke adds: "Catherine, Peter, and their various minions spit scathingly funny insults at each other. The punchlines come as swift and lacerating as Peter’s temper (which, as acted by the dexterous Hoult, erupt in bursts more frequently absurd than strategic). The production design and costuming is suitably lush, painting a vision of the Russian court that’s at once indulgent and brutal; for every jaw-dropping feast, there’s a royal tantrum, sudden (and extremely literal) backstabbing, a bag of heads courtesy of some unlucky Swedes. And since this version of Catherine and Peter’s story explicitly doesn’t care about being entirely accurate, its cast of characters is racially diverse in a way that period dramas rarely are; the best actors for the parts got the parts. The series does have a tendency to aggressively punctuate scenes with sex (an all too common hazard of getting a green light from a streaming network without content restrictions), and its comedic gushes of blood can be more predictable than effectively shocking. Its version of Catherine is so persistently feminist that it wouldn’t be surprising if she handed out pink pussyhats at a royal brunch. But with its sly and hilarious eye for court intrigue, The Great becomes a wickedly entertaining piece of historical fudging that lays bare the myopic nature of aristocracy, the root causes of revolt, and the danger inherent in thoughtless leaders surrounded by unquestioning yes-men."


    • The Great is very, very good -- but it's also very, very long: The Hulu series is "too long — a complaint about streaming series in particular that’s become so common I almost hate to make it again because it feels like such tired, whining ground," says Kathryn VanArendonk. 'It’s a fantastic show, but I wish there were less of it!' is an argument that barely even scans. In this case, though, it’s not just a case of Great-ness fatigue (although there is that, too). The show’s so good at sketching Catherine’s arc, from pure naïveté to disillusionment to gradual revolutionary, and its most striking scenes come out of the combination of Catherine’s honest sincerity and the show’s bleakly comedic tone. All of it is muffled by The Great’s excessive runtime. Catherine’s story feels meandering and less weighty than it should. In some of the earlier episodes, Peter and Catherine’s relationship has a boggy shapelessness. On a show that’s so much about excessive luxury and pointless wealth, its narrative excess may be purposeful. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea."
    • The Great fails to step forward from the sexist lens through which Catherine the Great's story has long been told: "The character of Catherine the Great has long been the butt of jokes and slut shaming because of her eventual sexual liberation, while her arrival in Russia is almost uniformly depicted in its exaggerated opposite. Importantly, both are distinctly masculine fantasies of a complicated and, for her time, progressively feminist woman. HBO's recent four-part adaptation, Catherine the Great, perhaps achieves its aims of avoiding the sensationalism around Catherine in part because it entirely skips her introduction to Peter, focusing instead on the romantic relationships of the older empress (Helen Mirren)," says Jeva Lange. "On the whole, The Great is a delightful, breezy retelling of Catherine's story, which makes the stale tropes about her transformation all the more exhausting. It makes me wonder, also, what could be achieved by putting her story in the hands of a female showrunner the next time around. For centuries now, it has been men who've largely been the ones to interpret Catherine the Great's story — one can't help but wonder, if you did away with all the blushes and sighs, the nightgowns and tears, what might have been said instead."
    • The Favourite’s heralded shadow looms large over The Great: "While The Favourite was brisk in its machinations, canny in its deployment of its most squeamish corporeal elements (the gout), The Great uses its 10-hour length as license for an aggressive assault on the boundaries of decorum," says Adrian Horton. "The squirm-inducing stunts of torture and vomit work in bursts, in a feature or perhaps half-hour chapters, but there’s only so much garish, ghastly flouting of the rules the point requires and the show’s brand of ruthless absurdity strains under 10 hour-long episodes; halfway in, I found myself wishing for a reprieve. Still, The Great maintains The Favourite’s bleak assessment of human motivation and capacity for meaninglessness in the name of keeping up appearances."
    • In the end, The Great doesn’t exactly live up to its title: "It hurts to feel critical when the cast is so entertaining," says Kristen Lopez. "Between Fanning, Fox, and Hoult there’s enough humor to derive from their performances to make things sail. But once the series attempts to engage with the political machinations of the war with Sweden and internal strife the acerbic humor just doesn’t gel. It almost feels like an R-rated parody swathed in some of the most breathtaking set and costume design you’re likely to see. In the end, The Great doesn’t exactly live up to the title. Fanning and crew work wonders, but it’s unclear who this series is aimed at. It’s too raunchy for teen fans (the Dickinson crowd) and yet too low-brow for those who consume Downton Abbey. And if you enjoyed The Favourite this feels like a watered-down distillation of what made that movie work so perfectly."
    • The Great is a gloriously delicious mashup of history: Creator Tony McNamara "could have drilled down on the parallels to contemporary world leaders, but The Great’s humor and observations are sharper in their timelessness," says Danette Chavez. "Like Catherine, The Great succeeds because it knows when to keep some things to itself."
    • The Great avoids the historical trap of writing towards the inevitability of Catherine’s future success: "Some historical television shows entertain by name-dropping and referencing actual events to make sure the audience knows it's well researched," says Alexis Nedd. "The Great entertains by doing the opposite: It twists history to serve its own purpose, rather than let facts dictate its narrative. The result is a refreshing interpretation of royal drama that's great enough to get away with rewriting the story of Catherine The Great."
    • Tony McNamara's The Great scripts soar with effervescent humor and cleverness that Elle Fanning amplifies with a sense of dignified, wry nonchalance: "Ornate sets, beautiful lighting and impressive cinematography make The Great easy to take in, but its raucous energy, and the message at its center, certify it as a sweet binge that nourishes nevertheless," says Melanie McFarland. "And in the way of the best series, it reveals to us what TV's been missing all this time: a fantasy about the rise of enlightenment, presents as we accelerate into anti-enlightenment."
    • The Great’s weak points are more forgivable, given that we’ve seen them before: "The Great has more peers than just its closest cousin," says Alison Herman, noting that The Great evokes memories of Emma, Dickinson, The Favourite and Helen Mirren's Catherine the Great. "All these analogs have the odd effect of making The Great something of a comfort watch, even as it uses the omnipresent violence of its time and place as a punch line," says Herman. "No, McNamara didn’t invent the idea of turning the past into a projection room for modern-day anxieties like women in charge, nor making light of customs we now see as atrocities. ('How was your evening?' 'Avoided rape. You?' 'Same.') But he puts these tropes to capable use, yielding a coming-of-age story whose expected pleasures are somewhat at odds with its intended shock value. Even The Great’s weak points are more forgivable, given that we’ve seen them before."
    • The Great is actually reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast: "Despite her aristocratic bloodline, The Great's Catherine is a bookish idealist more provincial than she realizes," says Inkoo Kang. "The German princess arrives at the Russian court to find herself a prisoner in a gilded cage, which happens to be stuffed with pet bears, heads on pikes, moose-lip desserts and a venerated decomposing corpse. The beast to her Belle is Peter, who ends their brief first meeting by saying, 'I have to get back to my whores. Whorses. Horses. Going riding!' Olivia Colman's Queen Anne in The Favourite — with her howling impatience, self-indulgent weakness for sex and fatty foods, and 17 bunnies, each symbolizing a child lost to miscarriage or stillbirth — was an utterly original character. Hoult, who co-starred in The Favourite, plays a more familiar figure — a young man who, save for his genuine delight and skill in cunnilingus, would have made for a bro-rrific frat president three centuries later. The Great makes no bones about the fact that he is Russia's greatest menace, dragging the country into a pointless war and violently enforcing arbitrary laws (such as a ban on beards) just to prove his might to a cowering, acquiescent court."
    • The Great wavers between being gleefully abusive and downright mean: "While its 10 episodes pop along and then fizzle out, a bigger problem presents itself, as The Great grows tediously and even torturously long — which may be its cruelest joke of all, as its appreciable style and sass surrender to repetitious rounds of palace intrigue," says Hank Stuever. "Otherwise, things start out swimmingly, as The Great offers a clever, anachronistic mash-up of past and present, where modern manners and dialogue meet the vivid extravagance of a period piece, owing debts to Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons and Sofia Coppola's dreamy mingling of Marie Antoinette and Valley Girl sensibilities."
    • Creator Tony McNamara -- who first conceived of The Great in 2008 -- wanted to have contemporary parallels: "Off of that idea, McNamara wanted to emphasize the aspects of the story that resonated with the modern day," says Jackson McHenry. "To that end, the language is 'hybridized' so that it feels 'more rhythmic and more fun,' and Catherine and Peter are designed to evoke contemporary archetypes." As McHenry notes, director Yorgos Lanthimos hired McNamara to work on The Favourite after reading his script for The Great.
    • The Great's production design team took three months to build "the heart" of the show, the grand hallway
    • Nicholas Hoult agrees he's unnaturally talented when it comes to playing these aristocratic, a**hole types: "Yeah, there’s just something in my DNA, where I put on a wig and I just turn into these bizarre humans," says Hoult. "I do weirdly find it quite fun, playing these offbeat, very disconnected people, who have no sense of the world around them. That, with Tony’s writing, I think it’s just so singular and unique and fun. They’re characters that, you can feel like you can do anything, at any moment with them. That’s something that’s really liberating and freeing. They’re wild and untamable, but you’ve also got a construct of a great script that you can stick to."
    • How Elle Fanning prepared to play Catherine the Great: "I read things about her, of course," she says." "It's inspiring too. But I think for this, your imagination has to take over at some point. I read that she invented the roller coaster. Who knew. She must've been an extremely fun woman. I looked up her handwriting, just to see what that looks like. Obviously, it's in Russian, but that was cool to get closer to her. But then at a certain point I realized I had to create my own version of her. I let my imagination take over at that point. I felt very free that we weren't doing a like stuffy period piece. We were so anti that. Completely anti. And there was a real comfort in that, that I felt like I could really just be a real human being. Like, I could just be a woman and bring all of her complications and complexities and her strengths and a lot of her weaknesses too. Our version of Catherine has a real big, kind of fabulous ego and arrogance to her that I love. I love playing with that. And then she really makes mistakes too. She doesn't always have the right answer, but I feel like she's extremely curious. I think in all leaders, to have curiosity is probably their best quality."
    • Fanning admits "I felt a lot like Catherine, honestly"
    • Creator Tony McNamara calls The Great a show about progress: Catherine, he says, is "a woman who takes power, but it’s also about both sides of the equation. Men have to sort of grapple with what they’re handed down to, their expectations on them. What is a male who inherits power, who inherits expectation, who inherits a way of viewing the world in a way he’s been taught to act within the world? What if this woman comes in who’s sort of an antagonist to him, but also changes everyone in the court? And shifts him? To me, he’s a character who keeps trying to break out of the roles he’s inherited, and the way he’s been taught to react to things, who lacks a bit of emotional intelligence.”

    TOPICS: The Great, Hulu, Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Tony McNamara

  • More TV Tattle: