‘The Great’ has problems balancing its extravagant snark with its dramatic impulses

Hank Stuever

THE WASHINGTON POST – Hulu’s The Great supplies its own asterisk: “An occasionally true story,” it needlessly acknowledges, as it romps and rambles through a loosely historical take on Catherine the Great’s rise to power in 18th-Century Russia. Intended as a dark comedy, it 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.

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.

Comparisons abound as we go, bringing to mind pieces of the CW’s Reign, Showtime’s The Tudors, and, more recently, Apple TV Plus’s Dickinson – where creators have used modern speech and alterna-hit soundtracks to throw open the heavy drapes of history and let in some fresh relevance. The glib banter that accompanies The Great’s torture scenes even carry a wicked whiff of Monty Python.

But it’s never a good sign when a critic starts listing all the other movies and shows that remind him of the thing he’s supposed to be reviewing; it indicates a lapse in originality. To all those comparisons, we can add one more: the 2018 film The Favourite for which The Great’s creator and writer, Tony McNamara, received an Oscar nomination for co-writing. When all is said and done, it’s the same sort of rock ‘n’ droll, with a giddy command of vulgarity to go with it.

Nicholas Hoult plays Peter III alongside Elle Fanning as Catherine in ‘The Great’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Elle Fanning gives it her all as young Catherine, the cucumber-cool, Prussian-born German princess who is married off to Russian Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). Upon arriving – and having her virginity crudely verified by a sycophantic archbishop (Adam Godley) – Catherine is appalled by her self-absorbed husband and the volatile and delusional way he rules over a palace full of loyal subjects who ceaselessly echo his obnoxious declarations of “huzzah,” obey his inane edicts and laugh nervously at his twisted jokes.

Hoult brings a boyish, blue-eyed menace to the job, even if the role leans too heavily on satire and only belatedly deepens into something slightly more human. Peter is a tyrant who is too dense and too bacchanalian to effectively rule – a spoiled man-child. “You are the only person who has not loved me,” Peter tells Catherine. “It’s inconceivable.”

Peter oversees a subservient empire of moral iniquity – and inequality, of course. (“We can’t read,” one of the palace’s noble women informs Catherine, when she asks them if they’re up on the new ideas brewing in European enlightenment.)

Appeased somewhat by Leo (Sebastian De Souza), the enthusiastic lover assigned to her by the emperor, Catherine discovers that she (and not some distant heir) can claim the throne if Peter is killed or otherwise deposed. Her dreams of ruling a more sophisticated Russia start to take hold, aided by her maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox). Catherine sets about using her charms and intelligence to win more secret allies in her plot for a coup.

The Great leans on facts when it wants, and fictionalises where it must. It will confound history buffs, who probably shouldn’t mess with it (try HBO’s stultified 2019 Catherine the Great miniseries instead), and delight viewers who notice this freedom-from also means freedom-to, perhaps most evident in The Great’s colourblind diversity in casting and its 21st-Century sarcasm. There are laughs to be had in each episode (some of them quite hearty), but there are tonal shifts into darker and more dramatic scenes that dampen the provocative spirit of the series rather than enhance it.

The balancing act here is tricky and might have been more successful if The Great’s episodes were shorter and fewer in number, favouring a momentum that would match the quick wit, instead of the slow-burning, redundant acts of scheming that drag it along. The Great ought to be able to thrive somewhere between PBS’ Masterpiece and HBO’s Veep but, mapping it out, that’s still a rather vast and treacherous-looking territory to claim.