REVIEWED: SEASON 1 (ALL EPISODES) | WHERE TO WATCH: STARZPLAY
Let's be honest, period drama isn't really about historical accuracy; it's more about exactly how much juicy and eye-catching stuff a writer can wring out of history. The Great describes itself as "an occasionally true story," which is just an amusing way of saying “alternate history.” Or, in other words, fiction. It's also one of the bleakest comedy dramas we've seen in 2020, which is high praise indeed.
The Great is an amusing take on the story of legendary Empress of Russia, Catherine The Great (Elle "Neon Demon" Fanning). The ten-part series opens with our hero on a swing, casually announcing that she's about marry Peter III of Russia (Tolkien's Nicholas Hoult). We get a quirky beat and then the gags continue; Catherine is breathlessly naïve, charming and, at the beginning of the series, the target of all the humour. Eventually though, she becomes something much more interesting and the humour twists and turns into something in equal parts laugh out loud and tragic.
Fanning is mesmerising in this role. The gentle and intellectual Catherine must navigate the brutal and shocking Russian monarchy, stumbling at first but then with razor sharp wit. Hoult is brilliant as the oblivious and cruel Emperor, a man so taken with his own un-earned privilege that he considers himself to be near god-like, balancing hedonism with brutality throughout. The supporting cast are equally fantastic; Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) makes the role of the cowardly yet manic Orlov his own and Phoebe Fox delivers some of the best lines as Catherine's servant, Marial.
The court itself is a debauched display of casual sex, thoughtless violence and quickfire dialogue. Much of the humour comes from the absurdity of the situation and although we have the trappings of history, what we really have here is a satirical drama that hunts down other period dramas and beats them up. Jokes about oral sex and bestiality rub shoulders with scenes of war, plague and murder to create something darkly funny and unforgettable
Starburst readers will be relieved to learn that this is neither Wolf Hall nor The Tudors. Instead, it's Black Adder meets Avenue 5 with more nudity and a massive costume budget. The pacing is, predictably, a little off . Some scenes are more cruel than funny and sometimes the need to shock the audience over takes the humour. This is a show that you will want to binge, but we firmly recommend that you don't; it's strong stuff in places and we advise that you take your time and enjoy it.