The Great, a self-professed ‘occasionally true story’, was originally released on streaming platforms in May 2020 and began airing on Channel 4 in January 2021. Loosely inspired by Catherine the Great’s plot to overthrow her despotic husband, the series has perhaps unprecedented topicality at a time of insurrection and unrest in the United States. Equally crucially, it arrives on our TV screens in time to satisfy the craving for bodice-clad bawdiness that may have been left by binge-watching Bridgerton.
Termed ‘anti-historical’ by series creator Tony McNamara, The Great uses Catherine’s marriage to the Emperor of Russia and her subsequent coup d’etat as a rough framework around which to craft a narrative of coming-of-age, conspiracy, social discord, and sexual politics, one that certainly rings true whatever its reappropriation of historical detail. Elle Fanning stars as Catherine, first introduced as a pastel-toned ingenue, evolving over the course of the series into a shrewd political player. A German princess married to Peter III, Emperor of Russia (Nicholas Hoult) Fanning’s Catherine is a serene diplomat in the face of her brutish husband’s whims and tantrums, while Hoult’s Emperor Peter combines the slapstick doltishness of Blackadder’s Prince George with the barbarous petulance of Game of Thrones’s Joffrey Baratheon. The strength of the lead actors is matched by a talented supporting cast that includes Sacha Dhawan (fresh from a turn in Doctor Who and playing the Master’s antithesis in Catherine’s neurotic, bookish co-conspirator Count Orlo) and Phoebe Fox (cast as an acid-tongued handmaid and regular supplier of such barbs as ‘Is this a coup or a fucking bookclub?’).
However, despite the accomplished performances of the cast, McNamara’s script leans too often on lazy humour at the expense of character development and narrative substance. The churlish Emperor Peter is largely one-note; ceaseless huzzah!-ing and loud repetition of his own jokes when they fail to land are recurring gags that far outstay their welcome. The comic dialogue, moreover, can at times rely a little too heavily on the novelty of eighteenth-century aristocrats delivering weak quips with modern cadences and liberal swearing; each instance of this feels more and more like the incessant use of the crotch-grab in modern productions of Shakespeare to unsubtly indicate a lewd joke has been made.
The Great joins a rapidly-expanding company of costume dramas aiming to marry period with contemporary; advertised by Hulu as ‘genre-bending’, it does not so much strike out as a trailblazer as refract the efforts of its film and TV predecessors. The posters released prior to the series’ premiere showed Catherine dressed in a spicy hot pink that mirrors the promotional colour scheme of fellow Hulu offspring Harlots (2017-19), while the pastel palette of the early episodes is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). The series also mirrors Coppola’s soundtrack of spiky strings and songs released after 1970, while its colourful tumble of bawdy antics and carefree anachronism has echoes of Russell T. Davies’s Casanova (2005); costume designer Emma Fryer’s creative ‘punk rock’ approach to Peter’s wardrobe sees him swaggering around the palace dressed as an eighteenth-century Mick Jagger in leather-look breeches and a leopard-print frock coat. The use of deadpan humour is reminiscent of such recent Austen adaptations as Love & Friendship (2016) and Autumn de Wilde’s imagining of Emma (2020); moreover, it is impossible not to compare the series to McNamara’s previous success with The Favourite (2018), co-written with Deborah Davis. While The Great keeps pace with its contemporaries, however, it doesn’t quite go far enough to forge a lane of its own.
Putting aside the series’s posturing as an obscure outlandish cousin of the extended costume drama family, The Great offers an otherwise very watchable interpretation of Catherine’s coup. She and her intimate circle of conspirators share an idealistic hope of a better future that feels refreshing amidst the flippant brutality of Peter’s court, and arguably the most endearing scenes are those in which Catherine is in conference with her allies, negotiating her path to power. Fanning gives a particularly compelling performance in the season’s penultimate episode, when, speaking from the head of the table to a roomful of aristocrats whom Peter has violently tortured, she gives a passionate speech about how they are united both in their pain and in their hope for ‘a less wounded future’. The scene is a satisfying contrast to Catherine’s wedding feast in the first episode, when Peter dismisses her attempt at a speech with a disdainful, ‘No, you don’t talk, my love.’ Catherine’s growth in confidence and political savvy makes for rewarding viewing; when she is warned, for instance, by the Archbishop (Adam Godley), ‘You are dancing close to heresy,’ Catherine replies, unruffled, ‘Shall I get some musicians in?’
The season ends with an enigmatic nod and the echo of a single gunshot, and in July 2020, it was confirmed that The Great would return for a second series. The cast, costumes, and the show’s general visual spectacle are already strong inducements to continue watching. Though the writing of this first season at times feels slapdash and ill-fitting, a firm yank on the corset-laces of the script could make for a tight, polished article as singular and formidable as Catherine herself.
Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4 from 3 January 2021; also available to stream on Starzplay