Early in The Great, Hulu’s new satire about the younger years of Russian empress Catherine the Great, her husband, Peter III, insists, “People underestimate the joy in suffering.” The Great for the most part finds Peter to be an utter buffoon of a failson, but it agrees with him on this one philosophical point. Nearly all of the show’s joy can be found in how it depicts the pain of others. The whole thing recalls the famous Mel Brooks line: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Created by The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara, The Great bills itself as “an occasionally true story.” Anachronisms and inconsistencies abound, from the periodic use of modern idiom and music (the latter over the end credits of each episode) to the fact that many characters in this very Russian story are played by actors of color. (Also, everyone speaks with an English accent, including Elle Fanning in the title role, though that’s par for the course for the genre; see also HBO’s recent Catherine the Great, with Helen Mirren as an older version of the character Fanning’s tackling here.) McNamara doesn’t overly sweat the facts of the period, and there’s frequently a sense that he’s moments away from going full Inglourious Basterds and rewriting all of Russian history.
The Great is instead concerned with showing what drove the German-born Catherine to fall so in love with her new homeland that she felt the need to rescue it from her sadistic frat-bro husband (played by Nicholas Hoult). And on that level, both the series and its leading lady live up to the title.
The 10 hours can be a tough watch at times, because Peter is just so terrible — yet not quite monstrous enough to become Peter the Terrible (Peter the Great was that guy’s grandfather) — and Catherine for so long seems so powerless. In one episode, he cheerfully tells her, “You probably don’t remember this, but a week ago, I shot your bear and punched you.” Like Catherine, you will of course remember, and be shocked as much at your amusement as at the acts themselves.
It’s probably best to think of the series as a collection of very dark comic sketches. Some miss to the point of being deeply uncomfortable to sit through, but those at least capture the feeling of a woman, and a country, being held hostage by an overconfident idiot. (Sound familiar?) And the ones that hit are explosively funny precisely because the world Catherine finds herself in is so relentlessly awful.
Hoult and McNamara smartly present Peter as an overgrown, oversensitive child. (He has his mother’s fully-dressed skeleton in a display case in the palace, forever seeking her approval even after her death.) He’s difficult to be around, and yet there’s something almost perversely endearing in how oblivious he is to his own worst behavior, and how badly he craves others’ approval even when he has supreme power. (Like Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos, whenever he says anything even vaguely clever, he has to repeat the punchline again and again to everyone in the room to be sure they heard and enjoyed it.) Tilt the angle on the character even a few degrees, or swap in an actor even a bit less fundamentally likable, and Peter could be unwatchable. Instead, he works as both comic engine and hissable villain. (And even with Hoult, you may need to hide behind the couch during certain gruesome scenes, like one where Peter invites dinner guests to pluck out the eyeballs from the severed heads of enemy soldiers.)
Catherine is the more complicated character, and Elle Fanning is really something to behold in the role: naive but capable of great calculation, passionate but vulnerable, ridiculous but inspiring, and able to make the show’s more dramatic scenes feel entirely real in the midst of the cartoonish antics elsewhere in each hour. She nails every beat of it, and is never less than intensely watchable. It’s a hell of a calling card as she gets deeper into the adult phase of her acting career.
The supporting cast is strong as well, including Sacha Dhawan as Catherine’s academically-minded collaborator Count Orlov, Phoebe Fox as noblewoman turned sarcastic handmaiden Marial, Sebastian De Souza as Catherine’s lover Leo (hand-picked by Peter to make himself feel less guilty about his own adultery), Adam Godley as the smug archbishop, and Belinda Bromilow as Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth, who is either crazy or has learned to to use the appearance of it as a defense mechanism in a place where bloody purges are always a possibility.
But then, the series’ sharpest jokes often involve the women of the palace acknowledging the constant danger. In one episode, Catherine asks Marial how her evening was. “Avoided rape. You?” Marial casually replies. “Same,” Catherine tells her. “If anyone ever invents something easier than buttons, we are all in trouble.” (Things are a bit better for the men, but only so much under Peter, who somehow turns shaving into a recurring act of violence.)
Peter is fond of saying “Huzzah!” to cheer on his own pitiful efforts at governance. By the time you reach The Great‘s end, you’ll likely be saying it yourself, and more confidently than Peter ever does.
Hulu is releasing the first season of The Great on May 15th. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.