Television Series #5:
“The Great” (2020), from the same mind of the writer of “The Favourite” (2018; directed by Yorgos Lanthimos), Tony McNamara, gives us a historically inaccurate, satirical spin on Catherine the Great. Dubbed “an occasionally true story,” we follow Catherine (Elle Fanning) as she leaves home and embarks enthusiastically (and naively) to Russia to marry Peter III (Nicholas Hault in one of his most egregiously hilarious roles).
Dreaming of a romantic partnership and a long-awaited sexual awakening, Catherine is sorely disappointed when her new husband is a dud. It does not take long, however, for her to readjust to her circumstances and begin strategizing a way to remove Peter from his position as Emperor and take over herself. In the show, she is 19 years old upon arrival, and plans the coup for the 20th birthday. In real life, however, she is 14 when she arrives in Russia (yikes!) and has to trudge through an agonizing 18 years and one child before she is able to make her move. The faster pace is much more suitable for television, of course. The show also likely livened Peter up a bit, for in reality he was boring and potentially impotent, but in “The Great,” he is selfish and pathetic, childish and exuberant. He is handsome, a playboy, sleeps with all the women and hosts parties to get drunk with all the men.
However, the details aren’t meant to be fussed over. The show is best enjoyed for its deliciously indulgent flare. It is fabulously entertaining, and gives viewers insights into the gist of what happened, without burying it with the true to life substance of it. It holds no bounds with its gory, raw approach as well. Profane in its dialogue, gruesome in its occasional antics (headless Swedes make an appearance at the dinner table), and well-performed by its stacked cast of relative newcomers (Sebastian de Souza who also plays a role in this years beloved “Normal People,” Sacha Dwahan, and Phoebe Fox).
Though, as mentioned, it takes plenty of historical liberties, many of the questions raised understand the gravity of Catherine’s life just the same. It allows viewers to wrestle with the challenges she was facing, but it also gives the writers the opportunity to divert the plot expectations and take us on different routes. There is enough weight to the storyline and the characters that the audience is able to connect and invest in the outcomes. The show thoughtfully explores the political dichotomies that exist in any governing structure: traditional vs. innovative, men vs. women, idealism vs. reality. The series also pays mind to practices that seem foreign to us now – there is a hilarious sequence involving a “Science Party” thrown by Peter, which namely involves a slew of absurd demonstrations.
This wild ride comedic drama is part of a recent influx in radical takes on period pieces (i.e., “Dickinson” & “Bridgerton”), and it delivers. There’s no question that this show was both made for the long game, where it can be taken in new directions, and deserves the chance to show it. Lucky for us, it has been formally renewed for a second season which will include 10 episodes. The show can be watched on Hulu streaming service.
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