Review: 'The Great' Is Pretty Good Loosely (very loosely) based on the early life of Russia's Catherine the Great, Hulu's 10-episode historical comedy-drama is arch, witty, twisty and knowing.
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Crass Warfare: 'The Great' Casts A (Vodka) Gimlet Eye On Privilege

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Crass Warfare: 'The Great' Casts A (Vodka) Gimlet Eye On Privilege

Review

Crass Warfare: 'The Great' Casts A (Vodka) Gimlet Eye On Privilege

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hulu's new series "The Great" is loosely - very, very loosely - based on the young woman who would become the Russian Empress known as Catherine the Great. Critic Glen Weldon says it's a witty, knowingly funny show that showcases Elle Fanning's comedy chops.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: When we first meet the naive, young Catherine, she's dreamily pushing herself back and forth on a swing entwined with lush flowers. The year is 1762 or thereabouts - don't get too hung up on dates. "The Great" bills itself as an occasionally true story and plays so fast and loose with history, it'll give any serious student of the Romanov dynasty an aneurysm. Back to Catherine on that swing with her friend. She's swooning with giddy anticipation at leaving her home in Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT")

ELLE FANNING: (As Catherine) I am to be married.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Who would marry you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Does this crazy man know your family situation, that you have nothing?

FANNING: (As Catherine the Great) He cares not for such matches. Emperor Peter and I are about finer things.

WELDON: Catherine's an idealist, a progressive one who is looking forward to bringing education and equality to Russia. She's also looking forward to her life at Emperor Peter III's palace and, not for nothing, to her wedding night. When it arrives, she assures her royal servant that she already knows exactly what to expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT")

FANNING: (As Catherine the Great) Your body ushers forth the Alps (ph) and sometimes song before he and you explode within, collapsing together, spent and unified. Then you lay together, laughing softly, weeping occasionally with ecstatic joy. And finally, he wraps his arms around you, whispers poetry softly into your ear. And you fall into it deliciously.

WELDON: Everything soon comes crashing down, of course. The sex is joyless and perfunctory. The palace turns out to be a nest of vipers. Her life as empress leaves her powerless and seething with resentment. And as for Peter himself, well...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT")

NICHOLAS HOULT: (As Peter III) I will shut you up at my pleasure.

FANNING: (As Catherine the Great) You will try and fail.

HOULT: (As Peter III) You will be happy. You will die here in content old age, having given me hours of pleasure and service and many heirs, boys preferably. I do have a temper and some rage. You cannot cross me, especially not in front of others. Or you will pay endlessly, and you will never win. You'll just be in pain.

WELDON: As played with sinister bravado by Nicholas Hoult, Peter is a nightmare, a preening sociopath poured into a pair of tight leather pants. His darkness leaves Catherine helpless and despondent but not for long. "The Great" was created Tony McNamara, based on his play. McNamara later co-wrote 2018's "The Favourite." And if you've seen that Oscar-winning film, you know what to expect here - yes, bustles and corsets, powdered wigs and snuffboxes but also a kind of arch-satiric edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) A small thing, Emperor. I would like to take the land of my recently widowed sister-in-law and nephews.

HOULT: (As Peter III) Oh, that's sad. How did Orlowski (ph) die?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) A sword was found in his back.

WELDON: The real surprise is Elle Fanning, who hasn't done a lot of comedy before. She's fantastic here as Catherine goes from naive to horrified to resigned to defiant.

FANNING: (As Catherine the Great) Russia must be saved and I with it. How is the question. I've never done a coup before, so I'm unsure how to proceed.

WELDON: McNamara's play brought in an older actress to portray Catherine in the second act. The television series deals only with her youth. Should "The Great" get the second season it deserves? Here's hoping we haven't seen the last of Fanning just yet. She's laid the series' emotional groundwork and it would be fun to see her build it a new winter palace. Glen Weldon, NPR News.

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