The show focuses on the marriage between the Emperor Peter and Empress Catherine the GreatTWITTER/YANUAUREC

She dreams of a better Russia; he likes shooting bears and talking to his dead mother. Sound like an unlikely marriage? Not if you’ve been watching the period drama/dark comedy that is The Great!

This year, the free streaming service All 4 welcomed the self-proclaimed “occasionally true story” of Empress Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) and her rise to power. With its lewd dialogue, intelligent wit, and complete disregard for the traditional “period drama”, this ten-parter is the TV series you’ve been looking for to help combat the daily drudgery of a third national lockdown. If you liked Netflix’s Bridgerton, but thought it a little tame, enter The Great — its older, ruder brother.

What’s so great about The Great?

From commanding his wife to poke out the eyeballs of his enemies, banning beards and parachuting Pomeranians out of windows, Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult) is mad, bad, dangerous to know and has deeply problematic “mummy issues”. His new wife Catherine, although initially believing she may have found true love, soon becomes frustrated with her place in court. She dreams of taking Russia far away from her unhinged husband’s tyrannical rule. So, with the help of her maid, she decides to plan a coup.

Elle Fanning as Catherine the GreatTWITTER/EFANNINGITALY

A farcical fictional romp through the, almost entirely exaggerated, Russian court of Emperor Peter the III, The Great is outrageous, salacious and has at least three “did that really just happen” moments per fifty-minute episode. Clearly a fan of a strong female lead, Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis who, in 2018, brought us the critically acclaimed The Favourite starring Olivia Coleman and Emma Stone, bring their same dry wit to another (naughtier) re-telling of a historical female monarch.

A coming-of-age comedy meets a deeply dark drama as a teenager’s first romance, temper tantrums and mass torture are combined in this series. Definitely not your grandma’s average historical drama, the Russian court is a drunken circus run by an easily provoked man-child with unscrupulous morals, a high libido, and an even higher desire for constant praise and reassurance. His answer to every political problem is a shot of vodka and a spirited “Huzzah!“.

Great by name, great by nature

Hoult’s Emperor Peter is extravagant, barbaric and at times (oddly) charming, while Fanning’s Catherine is perfectly enigmatic, spirited, and watchable. Together they carry the series effortlessly, along with a strong cast of supporting actors.

The writers certainly don’t hold back in their depiction of the monarchy’s darker side in this series. Public torture, murder and decapitated heads are all featured in grotesque and startling detail, so it’s definitely not a polite “comedy of manners”. But it’s shocking and sometimes appalling twists are what makes The Great so delightfully watchable. The perfect antidote to lockdown blues, this show is truly a testament to how the warm glow of the television screen has been a light in the dark to many in a lonely time.

“It’s exhilarating, it’s thrilling, and, most importantly, it’s a brilliant distraction.”

While (in our own lives) time moves at a snail’s pace, in The Great the action is lightning fast. The drama is sometimes convoluted and more often than not ridiculous, but it also has the power to carry you miles away from the humdrum of 2021 and into a completely imagined universe where scandal is rife, corsets are pulled tighter than anything, and one wrong move would almost certainly result in having your head chopped off. It’s exhilarating, it’s thrilling, and, most importantly, it’s a brilliant distraction.

Facts? Who needs them

Hulu, where The Great was first released in 2020, has described the show as anti-historical. LA Times TV Critic Robert Lloyd commented on Oscar-nominee and creator Tony McNamara: “McNamara had jotted down a few historical bullet points, torn up the paper, and started writing.” If you’re after a show that’s historically true, perhaps The Great is not the show for you. However, if, like me, you’re after something that will glue your eyes to the screen and you don’t mind a little historical fact-bending for the sake of good entertainment, then I doubt you’ll be disappointed.


Mountain View

Review Take 2: Bridgerton

With a sprinkling of seduction, a dash of sadism, a hint of scheming and a whole dollop of satire, The Great is a welcome escape. It’s lewd, ludicrous and I loved every second of it. My advice? Don’t binge this one. A show as delightfully absurd as this deserves to be savoured.