If you loved The Favourite, the modern twist on British period dramas that won Olivia Colman the Oscar, we can’t see how you wouldn’t fall in love with the similarly named and similar in tone The Great, based extremely loosely on the life of Catherine The Great and dropping all ten episodes today on Hulu. The show’s creator Tony McNamara co-wrote The Favourite and in many ways takes the opportunity of this series to lean in on all the factors that made the movie so entertaining: wit, rapid-fire editing, a talented cast bursting with energy, a modern sensibility puncturing the fustiness of the genre, gorgeous costumes and settings, a plucky young heroine prone to scheming, and Nicholas Hoult, doing one of the things he happens to do best: a hilarious turn as a pretty asshole.
Fanning and Hoult are both so good at using their fairy tale looks to their fullest dramatic and comedic potential that they tend to make the best argument for watching the show. That’s as it should be, since the story of Peter and Catherine’s marriage is both iconically historic and also the centerpiece of the story. He, the ultimate Prince Charmless and she, the starry-eyed Cinderella ever in search of a fairy godmother to rescue her from the nightmare of her marriage, play off each other like a couple of bitchy Fragonard paintings, sniping and smiling, scheming and slapping, each of them the perfect romantic ideal of western art, each of them looking almost too perfect in the role, each of them miserable in their own way. “I am a prisoner, married to an idiot!” Catherine complains to her ladies maid, who responds dryly “This has never happened to a woman before,” while moving on to the matter of preventing the new empress from committing suicide.
McNamara makes no attempts to be historically accurate and the show is extremely open about that fact up front, with the title card of each episode bearing the asterisked “a mostly true story.” This not only gives him the freedom to rearrange events and introduce fictional characters, but it gives the show the opportunity to play with all of our expectations for this kind of story, starring these kinds of actors. And of course, it allows every character to speak in the sort of quick-witted sarcasm that keeps the energy high and entertains with its ongoing meta-commentary about not just history, but about marriage, sex and gender in history and how the personal lives of the powerful tend to effect the millions of people under their rule.
If you’re sensing a “However” in all of this, give yourself a cookie. We recommend the show for all the reasons stated above, with one caution: Take your time with it. There’s a reason the word “relentless” is in the title of this review. The performances are hilarious or charming, the energy is fun and quick, the sets and costumes are stunning. HOWEVER. You’re still watching horrible people do horrible things over and over again. Between the witty japes and fast cutting, people are whipped and beaten, sexually harassed or assaulted, humiliated or exploited, and animals are killed for sport or revenge. It’s to the show’s credit that, much like The Favourite, it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of history – especially regarding its major movers and shakers. The tonal shifts between comedy and the rougher aspects of history tend to work, mostly due to the deft performances of Hoult and Fanning, who manage to be villainous and naive respectively, while also being charming, funny, and infuriating in their stubbornness and short-sightedness. It’s a story of a terrible marriage in a terrible court at a terrible time – and while it’s presented as the story of a young woman coming into her power and eventually stepping into her historic, world-changing role, this first season is turned over entirely to the misery of her marital situation and how it fuels her desire for justice and revenge. It’s a fun take that owes no debt to accuracy, but Catherine’s triumphs are further down on the timeline, which makes this season a witty, but occasionally exhausting take on her low points.
Another reason to take your time with it and not try to burn through it all too quickly? The gorgeous sets and costumes, which can be overshadowed by the script, performances and editing of the show: