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Foul on the Court

‘The Great,’ which hits Hulu on Friday and was created by the cowriter of ‘The Favourite,’ has the same spirit as that ribald ahistorical take, and is powered by two raucous performances from Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult

Hulu/Ringer illustration

While watching The Great, you may find yourself playing a mental round of I Spy—or maybe, in the spirit of a story about Russian royalty, a drinking game (in fact, The Great’s press materials include a handle of vodka, a deck of cards, and rules for … a drinking game). See how many similarities you can spot between Hulu’s new series about Catherine the Great and The Favourite, the 2018 Yorgos Lanthimos film following a psychosexual tug-of-war in the court of Queen Anne. There’s the big-picture parallel: Both are acid-tongued tales of 18th-century monarchs with a profane and present-day point of view. But there are also smaller, oddly specific echoes: servants who used to be nobles, vomit ejected into inappropriate vessels, animals running wild through the halls of a palace, the evocative term “cunt struck.”

Such points of overlap have an easily traceable source. The Great is created by Tony McNamara, the Australian writer who shares credit for The Favourite’s screenplay with Deborah Davis. Davis wrote a first draft of The Favourite, then titled Balance of Power, in 1998, drawing carefully from the real-life history of Queen Anne and her confidantes. McNamara was brought on by Lanthimos himself much later on to infuse The Favourite with its now-signature tone of gleeful nastiness and barbed cynicism, depicting period finery as but a thin, unconvincing cover for the ugliness that lies beneath. During production, McNamara met Nicholas Hoult, who now costars in The Great as Catherine’s doltish husband Peter. (Not Peter the Great. That would be his father.)

The Great is not exactly a case of McNamara karaoke-ing the hits. The Favourite may have earned The Great its series order early last year, but it predates McNamara’s work with Lanthimos—the pilot script actually got McNamara the job from a crowded field of 150 contenders. The subject matter of The Great is an even more natural fit for the projects’ shared themes: In a Russia left behind by the Enlightenment, a situation Catherine would eventually work to alleviate, the extravagance of an imperial court really was play-acting at European sophistication, all while serfs lived in human bondage and education was scarce.

Besides, The Great has more peers than just its closest cousin. Comedic anachronism has a long and proud history, stretching back through Monty Python and the Holy Grail. More recently, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette played with royalty as an analog for punk-rock teen ennui; The Great’s title character is portrayed by Elle Fanning, who played a supporting role in Coppola’s The Beguiled (and cites The Virgin Suicides as her favorite film). Last year’s Dickinson also projected post-second-wave gender politics onto a time when women were barely recognized as people. And in its droll humor, including a winking disclaimer that its contents are “an occasionally true story,” The Great recalls Emma., Autumn de Wilde’s pastel-hued Austen adaptation from earlier this spring. Emma. isn’t nearly as flippant with its source material, but it does approach historical fiction with a similarly ironic detachment.

Nor is The Great the only study of its central figure to come out in the past several months. Helen Mirren’s portrait for HBO and Sky is as informative in its contrast to Fanning’s as other works are in their comparisons. A late-in-life study of Catherine as she struggles to maintain power after seizing the throne from her incompetent husband, Catherine the Great is the mirror image of The Great, which situates itself in the unbearably long lead-up to Catherine’s eventual coup rather than its aftermath. The Great is about yearning for authority, not trying to use it responsibly.

All these analogs have the odd effect of making The Great something of a comfort watch, even as it uses the omnipresent violence of its time and place as a punch line. No, McNamara didn’t invent the idea of turning the past into a projection room for modern-day anxieties like women in charge, nor making light of customs we now see as atrocities. (“How was your evening?” “Avoided rape. You?” “Same.”) But he puts these tropes to capable use, yielding a coming-of-age story whose expected pleasures are somewhat at odds with its intended shock value. Even The Great’s weak points are more forgivable, given that we’ve seen them before.

When Fanning’s Catherine arrives at court an obscure aristocrat from Prussia, she’s a romantic naif who dreams of what any young lady at the time would: a dashing, doting husband to make her dreams come true. Instead, she gets Peter, a spoiled boor who keeps his mother’s mummified corpse on display and can’t escape his father’s legacy—his lack of honorifics bothers him to no end. So Catherine keeps the sweeping ambition, but directs it away from her marriage and toward Russia itself. Together with her servant Marial (Phoebe Fox) and new ally Count Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), she starts plotting the coup we know will happen eventually, but not for many years to come.

Even The Great’s setup takes some serious liberties. At the time of Catherine’s marriage, Peter was not actually Emperor of Russia; the realm was still in the hands of his Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), whom The Great turns into a sort of daffy mentor as Catherine figures out how to navigate the court. (The actual Peter was on the throne for just six months before Catherine took matters into her own hands.) But The Great, a show in which a character casually invents the Moscow Mule during an afternoon stroll, does not aspire to accuracy. The score is as likely to feature synths as strings, while the closing credits feature artists such as Courtney Barnett. And like an increasing number of contemporary period pieces, it’s often colorblind in its casting, populating its lavish palace with faces that don’t really pass for Russian nobility. Everyone’s already speaking in British accents, Chernobyl-style—why not go all in?

Where the show struggles is in sustaining its tone over 10 full hours. Yes, The Great has a nasty case of “why is this an hour long?”-itis, a common affliction among streaming shows and a natural enemy to the concision of good comedy, Succession being the exception that proves the rule. Such length gives The Great room to waver between sitcom-like satire and high-stakes drama: Sometimes, the brutality is slapstick, like when a priest sets himself on fire only for his martyrdom to be met with a shrug; sometimes, it’s genuinely horrifying, like when Peter nearly drowns his wife for attempting to escape her new circumstances. But it’s often difficult to tell when The Great wants us to snicker and when it wants us to gasp.

But, just as The Great is not the first show to hit on its addictive mix of fantasy and farce, it’s also not the first to wobble mid-balancing act. Dickinson, too, vacillates between the reckless absurdity of Wiz Khalifa as the Grim Reaper and the straight-faced seriousness of oversimplified girl power. Catherine the Great may have been an enlightened despot, but a despot she still was; serfdom wouldn’t be eliminated in Russia until well into the next century. She’s an awkward fit for a “more-women-guards”–style empowerment narrative, even when the awkwardness is part of the joke.

Yet, also like Dickinson, The Great has an ideal saleswoman for its heady mix of high and low. At just 22, Fanning has a CV that already spans from Mike Mills to Nicolas Winding Refn. Catherine is a well-suited vessel for Fanning’s vulpine looks and wistful, romantic air, while demanding a skill set young ingenues are rarely asked to show off: comedic chops. The Great may predate The Favourite, but they share performances that serve as a center of gravity, even as everything around them careens from one extreme to the next.