Hulu's new series The Greatreminds viewers at the top of every episode that it is "an occasionally true story," and because the show is not concerned with accuracy and takes liberties with its historical subject matter, the 10-episode satire from The Favourite's Tony McNamara is able to avoid the stuffiness that permeates traditional period pieces to become a cheeky comedy about one ambitious woman's attempt to rise to power in a world dominated by insufferable idiots and ineffective male leadership.
The series reimagines the early years of Russia's Catherine the Great, the leader who would revitalize the country after overthrowing her husband, Peter III, and turn Russia into a great power. Portrayed by Elle Fanning with excellent comedic timing and surprising depth, Catherine is introduced as a young woman with romantic notions of love and marriage, believing she'll be a partner to Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult). However, after experiencing Peter's cruelty and the shallowness of the men and women at court, she becomes disabused of this notion, and by the end of the first episode has resolved to overthrow him and instill herself as the country's ruler instead.
The subsequent episodes are driven by her planning and scheming, and while this can become tedious and makes the series often feel too long (the show would have benefited greatly from 30-minute episodes rather than almost hourlong episodes), it provides a proper backbone for the series and reveals Catherine's evolution from innocent idealist to disillusioned empress to determined revolutionary leader. But she's not alone. Along the way, Catherine is aided in her mission by her sarcastic servant, Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former noblewoman armed with scathing retorts for every occasion who's still upset about being demoted because of her father's misdeeds; her intellectual equal, Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), one of Peter's inner circle who shares Catherine's ideals for Enlightened progress; and her lover, Leo (Sebastian de Souza), who was hand-picked by Peter to ease his guilty conscience about sleeping with other women.
Over the course of the series Catherine is portrayed as being both incredibly intelligent and forward-thinking yet ill-prepared and completely out of touch with the country she presumes to rule, a note that is punctuated sharply by a scene halfway through the season in which Catherine, dressed in opulent clothing, travels to a battlefield littered with the bodies of dead Russians and Swedes and distributes macarons to injured soldiers, as if a sweet treat can fix the ravages of war. To her credit, Catherine immediately recognizes the ridiculousness of her actions and wants to do better. Among other things, it's this willingness and eagerness to learn and to better herself, as well as her new country, that sets Catherine apart from Peter, though he is also an interesting study.
As portrayed here, the emperor, who burns Catherine's school to the ground because she dares to teach women to read, is as an oversized, self-obsessed man-child, a frat bro in period clothing who surrounds himself with yes men and is constantly seeking the approval of his mother, who died several years before the start of the series -- he even keeps her decaying corpse encased in glass in the palace, the creepy version of Clueless's Cher Horowitz showing off her grades to a painting of her late mom. But Peter, while definitely a cruel man with little concern for others, also comes off as less of a raging asshole than as a clueless man who goes on the offensive before he can be exposed as weak. Part of this is due to Hoult, whose charm manages to sneak through in Peter's rare glimpses of humanity before his selfish impulses get the best of him, but it's clearly built into McNamara's script as well.
While many of the changes the show made to history are to the show's advantage -- the cast is much more racially diverse than it otherwise would have been -- there were times I found myself questioning some of the liberties the show took with what we know to be true, not because the changes to the historical record were egregious, but because they sometimes felt rather unnecessary. For example, the tsar (and later emperor) Peter the Great is said to be Peter's father, rather than his grandfather. This allows the show to highlight the younger Peter's inferiority complex and ineffectiveness as a leader in comparison to his respected lineage. But does it matter if he is Peter the Great's son or grandson in the grand scheme of things? Would the shadow not loom large regardless?
This alternate history, and other instances of it, will likely go unnoticed by most viewers, and thus are relatively minor and bear little consequence, so quibbling about them is ridiculous at best, and nitpicking at worst, especially when the show regularly reminds us it's fiction and only occasionally based on the truth. But for students of history, these mundane revisions might yet stand out. Despite this, I found some of the series' anachronisms -- like Leo inventing the Moscow Mule, a popular cocktail created in the U.S. in the 1900s -- to be a welcome addition, as they served to enhance the lively spirit of the narrative (and because this particular example also calls to mind another show that plays with history and once introduced the banana daiquiri a few centuries too early).
Period pieces can sometimes feel like a lecture, but The Great, elevated by brilliant performances from both of its leads and a bold and genuinely funny script, is far from a bore. With lavish set and costume design, and plenty of well-timed jokes (not just the ones Peter has to repeat for his cronies to laugh at), the show is a fascinating exploration of court theatrics and politics as seen through the eyes of a competent woman whose ideas and desire for progress are constantly disregarded by intellectually inferior men. When the show is viewed through the lens of a post-2016 existence, wanting to see Catherine succeed in her endeavor to seize power and lead her country into the Age of Enlightenment is more than welcome. But it's also more than that.
The way The Great acknowledges, often through its female characters, that how society views and treats women is bullsh-- is pointed social commentary that also reveals how easily Catherine's story could be told in 2020. In Episode 5, after Peter has been poisoned with arsenic and Catherine prepares to potentially take power without having to do much at all, Marial asks her what she'll wear for the occasion. "What? Who cares about that?" Catherine asks, noting that her words and promises are what matters. "As a woman, it's far more important what you wear," replies Marial. Even if The Great is only occasionally true to real life, it absolutely nails the parts that are.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The Great is now streaming on Hulu.