The Great (Hulu)

Adam Lenhardt

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Tony McNamara was nominated for an Oscar as one of the screenwriters of The Favourite, and this show provides a similar mix of period grandeur and pitch black comedy.

It is the middle of the 18th century, and the eldest daughter of the impoverished House of Anhalt has been promised in marriage to Peter III of Russia in order to improve her family's position and finances. Upon arrival in her new country, her idealism and romantic notions quickly curdle as she begins to understand the true nature of her new husband. All hope seems lost until she discovers that, should something happen to her new husband, his widowed wife would inherit control of the Russian Empire...

The show bills itself as "an occasionally true story", and it does indeed play very fast and loose with history. The timeline has been condensed considerably, with the two-decade reign of Peter's aunt, Elizabeth, omitted entirely. Rather, she is portrayed as an eccentric but politically adept elder at the periphery of the court. Instead of marrying Peter at age 16, and then waiting another sixteen years for her husband to become Emperor of Russia, a nineteen-year-old Catherine arrives at the Russian court with her husband having been already crowned. Many of the players in Peter's court on the show have real world analogs, but there is no effort made to create 1:1 correlations with the actual historical players.

That sounds like a criticism, but it really isn't. The show takes a historical premise -- a foreigner who marries an Emperor and deposes him less than a year into his reign -- and uses it for its own ends. The show is frequently laugh out loud funny despite (and sometimes because of) being not infrequently gruesome and brutal. All of the characters are well drawn and act according to their established natures.

Nicholas Hoult steals every scene he is in as the manifestly unfit Peter III of Russia. He is the embodiment of what happens when a stupid and crass individual grows up ensconced in wealth and privilege, utterly lacking in self-awareness about his many inadequacies and shielded his entire life from facing any consequences for his actions, lifted up by daddy's wealth and power. Hoult plays Peter as a spoiled child with a nonexistent attention span who blames others for his failures and delights in making himself feel powerful by inflicting cruelty on others who are not in a position to oppose him.

Elle Fanning is a revelation as the woman destined to become Catherine the Great; it is easily the best performance I've seen from her. She begins the first episode as a foolish and naive girl and has to acclimate quickly to the cutthroat environment in which she finds herself. Fanning makes you simultaneously believe that Catherine is way out of her depth and that Catherine has what it takes to pull this thing off. Her Catherine radiates intelligence, but also an impulsive boldness that quickly gets her into trouble. She makes a lot of mistakes in a very short amount of time, but learns from each and every one of them and adjusts accordingly. The show also gives focus to Catherine's interest in Enlightenment ideas, and her desire to further Russia politically, culturally, and intellectually. The show derives a lot of humor from the chasm between her enlightened ideals and the unenlightened reality of 18th century Russia.

Fanning and Hoult have an electric sort of chemistry, and as Catherine and Peter they dominate every room they're in. Catherine frustrates Peter, and Peter engenders disdain bordering on fury in Catherine. But when they're together, either opposing one another or working in concert with one another, you can't take your eyes off of them. Catherine is the smart, diligent avatar of revolutionary modernity. Peter is the stupid, entitled avatar of the status quo. The battle inside their marriage is also a battle for the future direction of Russia. The comedy elevates the drama, and vice versa.

I'm two episodes in and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.
 

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