The title sequence for the cheeky and charming “The Great” includes a reminder that the new series is “an occasionally true story.” But it’s an unnecessary note, added, I presume, for comic effect. Reality is rarely as funny as this sparkling period satire, set in mid-18th century Russia amid a sneaky coup d’état that plays out like a Scooby gang caper (with wigs). The Hulu series follows the teenage Catherine as she submits to an arranged marriage to the unbearably crude Russian emperor Peter, later seizing power to become Catherine the Great and reign for 34 years.
What you need to know first about “The Great” is that it is written by Tony McNamara, the co-writer of “The Favourite.” Like the 2018 movie, the series has a bawdy and profane disposition, and it exhibits an ongoing sense of glee when it comes to ridiculing the excesses of the high society of the time. Nicholas Hoult’s Peter embodies that decadence, as he vainly frat-boys his way from one mistress‘s bed to another, loudly repeating his bad jokes when his sycophantic attendants forget to laugh at them the first time. Also like the movie, the tight script is simultaneously mocking and psychodynamic, so that, for instance, Peter’s huge daddy issues get their own punchlines. Sometimes McNamara willfully perks up the courtly dialogue with modern turns of phrase, taking full advantage of that “occasionally true” warning, in order to heighten the absurdities of the era. But I should note that “The Great” isn’t nearly as contemporized as “Dickinson,” the Apple TV+ show that turns the 19th-century poet’s life into a bit of a house party.
I can’t imagine watching a full series built around Olivia Colman’s dithery and tragic Queen Anne from “The Favourite,” but Elle Fanning’s Catherine is quite a different story. Mordant and sensible, she’s good company throughout. Fanning maintains a cheerful aloofness as the empress, but we see her go through critical changes across the season. At first she is prim, a great idealist who believes marriage and sex are about intimacy and who hopes to lead Russia into a progressive period of humanity and art with her new husband. But her marriage is a disaster, as her intelligence butts up against his boorishness. When he offers her the gift of a lover — Sebastian De Souza’s wise Leo — she refuses, but her resolve softens as she becomes more practical. Rather than give up her aims for Russia, as most women in her position at that time might, she finds the heroic grit to push on. Throughout, I sensed Fanning — along with the rest of the cast — savoring McNamara’s brilliant script, with its carefully arranged layers of intention and its divine insults.
Along with Leo, who becomes her lover and her love, as well as her wily maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox), and one of Peter’s advisers, the gentle Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), Catherine develops her takeover plan. She learns how to manipulate Peter with praise, and he succumbs thanks to the very same idiocy that she despises. “You have given me a bear and have ceased punching me,” she says to him, barely suppressing her disdain. “What woman would not be happy? Huzzah!” She finds a way to assuage the hatred of the mean girls of the court, who instantly despise her and her morals. Wisely, as McNamara charts Catherine’s changes across the season, he puts obstacles in her way that are sometimes of her own making. She is moving toward power, and she is ambitious — but she is also moving toward enlightenment and self-awareness. She doesn’t just hate Peter, who chitchats with others while trying to impregnate her to keep his line alive; she hates his leadership and his foolish reasoning for fighting wars.
As Peter, Hoult, who was also excellent in “The Favourite,” is perfect, a temperamental child whose tantrums can end lives. He is amusing in his brattiness until he definitely is not. He is also — as a raging narcissist in charge, one who’s surrounded by men who always agree with him out of fear for their jobs — a resonant figure. He is a portrait of power run amok, of the chaos born of self-interest, the kind of portrait that, alas, is always timely.
Starring: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Adam Godley, Gwilym Lee, Phoebe Fox, Sebastian De Souza, Douglas Hodge, Charity Wakefield, Sacha Dhawan
On: Hulu. Premieres Friday