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Saturday
May 23 2020

Review: "The Great" on Hulu

byCláudio Alves

Most dramatizations of history have a difficult, often unbalanced, relationship with facts. Reality is notoriously devoid of narrative structure, which makes taking departures and creative license into an essential crime. The troubles arise when the parameters of adaptation aren't clear, when fiction dresses itself as truth, and confusion blooms from pretension. Hulu's biographical series about the early years of Catherine the Great in Russia is unencumbered by such issues, sidestepping them with irreverence. At the start of each episode, a title card points out that this miniseries is only occasionally based on things that really happened.

The rest of it is hilarious fantasy, a play on history that turns the rise of Russia's empress and reformer into the stuff of romantic comedy. It's a black-hearted farce that's unafraid and unashamed of being silly…

From the start, it's obvious thatThe Greatis much more interested in the legend of Catherine than the real 18th-century woman or her specific circumstances. In this version of the story, Peter III is no heir to the Russian throne when he marries the German Catherine. Instead, he's already emperor and Empress Elizabeth is relegated to a kooky supporting role. This allowsThe Great's Catherine to be presented to us as a charming innocent in direct contrast with the lunatic revelry of her husband's court. The show goes to great lengths to make sure Catherine is a likable protagonist as she's trying to take control of the nation. Any whiff of complicated ambition and ruthless political manipulation is carefully eradicated. At least, that's what happens at first.

艾丽·范宁戏剧是一个ideali的凯瑟琳st that's more naïve than she is cunning, a witless witness to the emperor's tyranny. History is much easier to make compelling when there are heroes and villains. Such simplification could backfire spectacularly, but the series succeeds, in great part thanks to its cast. That's especially true of its leads. Fanning makes this optimistic reading of Catherine into a luminous presence. She's a plucky heroine that may not impress as a wannabee ruler but charms as a comedy's leading lady. As for Nicholas Hoult, he's rancid as Peter, playing hedonism curdled into intolerable cruelty.The Favouriteshowed that the actor is always at his best when allowed to embrace grotesque affectation and, logically,The Great's Peter is one of his most marvelous creations.

Speaking ofThe Favourite, one of that film's screenwriters, Tony McNamara, is the creator ofThe Great. While the TV production has little of the audacity and genius of Yorgos Lanthimos' Oscar-winning feature, some of its mean-spirited archness comes through. Moreover, asThe Greatgoes along, the moral binary at its heart starts to mutate into something more akin to the complicated power dynamic ofThe Favourite. It'd be good if the visuals followed the same impetus, but this transformation will have to do. Before we know it, we're like Sandy Dennis clapping for violence and the sugary comedy has been laced with arsenic. That addition of poison makes the flavors ofThe Great's tonal cocktail more intense and delicious, a necessary evil for the story's functionality.

Some things remain constant, though, like the universally acknowledged truth that men are trash. That said, the mood of the show does get more ominous in the latter episodes, allowing Fanning and Hoult to develop their characters accordingly. She finds the dark side of rebellion and he shockingly embodies the romance living inside a pig of a man. Nevertheless, it's the supporting characters that more starkly mold the shifting mood of the show. Phoebe Fox's Marial is a figure of particular fascination. A noblewoman castigated by Peter and made a serf, she's one of the empress' most devoted conspirators. Still, what Marial wants isn't progress for Russia, but revenge for herself and that desire complicates the show's initial idealizations of Catherine's rise.

Despite its girl-power metamorphosis of History, in the end,The Greatconfronts the bloody price that power demands. Instead of millions of lives lost in battle, the show concentrates things on matters of the heart. Like many narratives about female leaders, this story ends up making its protagonist chose between romantic affection and love for one's country. Even as the clichéd plot annoys, its execution doesn't disappoint. When the credits roll on the conclusion, we feel sad to let these characters go and yearn for more resolution. However, we're also content. Whether following seasons come or not,The Great's ten episodes still finish things off with a pleasant enough bit of cynical punctuation. Fuck romance, power wins. Catherine wins. Huzzah!

The Greatisn't perfect but it's delightful and certainly worth your time. You can find it streaming on Hulu.

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Reader Comments (9)

Who has a better chance at Emmy for their portrayal of Catherine: Helen or Elle?

May 23, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterTom G.

@Tom G - none of them

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered Commenterrama

Too many streaming services, I don't get Hulu in Canada, but I really want to see this. But it's Nick Hoult that I am eager to watch.
Meantime I will have to make due with "Mrs. America" and "Normal People". Waiting isn't so hard.

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

This looks silly

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I love the story of Catherine the Great, especially the coup, and I loved the Favourite, so I was really excited. I liked it a lot, but I didn't love this as much as I wanted to. I think if they'd taken a firmer editing eye to the overall story and brought it down to 6 or 7 episodes, it might have been tighter and cleaner.

Elle很强;尼古拉斯Hoult彼得great; I loved Aunt Elizabeth, and the writing was really sharp in places. Still really enjoyed it, but I'm excited to see if Helen Mirren's gives me the Catherine I want.

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterHans

@LadyEdith - It is on Amazon Prime in Canada. I’m watching it now. Really enjoying it.

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterJW

I thought Fanning was really strong, but the Jane Austen on crack-humor wears really thin - especially over the course of 10 episodes. Tony McNamara definitely needs Deborah Davis to help mitigate his crudeness.

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterTyler

Tyler -- I have to agree that 10 episodes were too much for the show. It ended strong, but the middle sagged. McNamara's humor gets repetitive when left unchallenged and only the darker elements of the last few episodes allowed him to develop things. I think 6 or 7 episodes would have been better than 10, to be honest.

That said, I'd be very curious to see this team tackle a second season. Even with the silly atmosphere, I wonder how the show would portray Peter's swift death after imprisonment or Catherine's strained relationship with her son. Not to mention, that I'm fascinated by the transformation of Empress Elizabeth into a kooky aunt and would love to see how she plays into the rest of this sitcom version of History.

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterCláudio Alves

I loved it!

May 24, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterJamie

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