Last month, Hulu premiered THE GREAT, a series about Catherine the Great and her combative marriage to Peter in Prussia during the 18th century. Far from a straight period piece, though the costumes don’t look modern, it’s an outrageous, cartoonish take on the scandals, with huge liberties drawn in events and lineage. Despite the complete lack of accuracy, which the show does not disguise, it’s a fun, salacious romp in the vein of Gossip Girl or other teen dramas. But do the kids want to watch this genre in a foreign land and time? If they won’t, I will.
I’ll admit, I loved Gossip Girl, and a few other shows like it. I have also thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve watched of THE GREAT. It’s not high-brow, but it is high-quality in the way its made. The plot makes sense, and the characters are well-developed. The acting is delightful. Yet, something about the way it leans into the messiness and away from facts makes it seem less-than the sum of its parts. This doesn’t affect the glee to be had in watching, but it does keep it out of a list of prestige television. Even though, from the standpoint of originality and its production, it might just deserve to be up there. There’s a certain superficial sheen over the whole thing, which is not a complaint, but a stylistic choice.
Elle Fanning (Super 8) stars as Catherine. Elle plays her as intelligent, but prone to giving in to emotion. She can fake her way along at court, but is so self-righteous that she struggles at first to do so, even when it endangers herself and others. THE GREAT doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on this, but just enough. Layers are added as the piece unfolds, such as her surprising taking to Leo (Sebastian De Souza, Medici), the lover her husband ‘gifts’ her. But her best moments are when she plots with her lady’s maid, an out-of-favor noble named Marial (Phoebe Fox, Eye in the Sky). (It must be said, Fox steals every scene she’s in.) Fanning may be at her best when Catherine runs roughshod over counselor Orlov (Sacha Dhawan, Iron Fist), whom she wants to help kill her husband, while he just wants to bring modernity slowly and safely to the country, one beard at a time.
Speaking of the husband Catherine is locked into a mortal battle with, Peter is played by Nicolas Hoult (X-Men: First Class). It’s easy to underestimate what Hoult is doing with the childish dummy, a petty tyrant who embraces pleasure and demands love and devotion while giving none in return. This isn’t Peter the Great; this is his son (grandson in real life) who cannot live up the shadow of his father, and is too consumed with love for his dad to see that everyone else has perceived the failing. It’s a thankless role, one viewers will root against, but upon later reflection, Hoult is killing it in the part, certainly a contender for best performance in the show.
There are also plenty of players at court. Like Peter’s lover, Georgina (Charity Wakefield, Wolf Hall), who has more depth than you might expect. Georgina’s husband, Grigor (Gwilym Lee, Midsomer Murders), doesn’t like sharing his wife, but has to take that out on others than the man who is to blame. The Archbishop (Adam Godley, Breaking Bad) is like a Rasputin at first, though far less effective. Drunkard general Velementov (Douglas Hodge, Penny Dreadful) is in control of practically nothing.
If you’re trying to learn about Catherine and Peter, it must be noted that they were married many years before he was in charge, though in this series, he’s already ruling when she arrives. Instead, his Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow, Doctor Doctor) was the competent leader, portrayed in this as a crazy, though kind, nut. And once Peter did ascend, Catherine deposed him within six months. I don’t think that’s the path THE GREAT will take, as the battle between them is too much a part of the fabric of the show.
I find myself reluctant to praise THE GREAT too highly purely because of the zaniness it embraces without trying to be an obvious comedy. Yet, as I’ve said, I find much joy in watching it. If you want something that is both deadly and light, silly in its seriousness and serious about its silliness, or just a grounded period romp, then check it out
THE GREAT’s entire first season is available on Hulu now.