When audiences saw Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 period feature “The Favourite” it marked a bit of a turning point for the genre. Long considered the refuge of staid and boring storytelling — those who saw the world through a prim and proper British lens — “The Favourite” showcased an anarchic world of acid-dipped barbs and sex comedy shocking in its frankness; the frankness probably having a lot to do with the fact women were engaging in it.
Co-screenwriter Tony McNamara’s new series for Hulu, “The Great,” seeks to replicate Lanthimos’ success, right down to having similar titles. But already the cracks in the gimmick — and in “The Great” it does seem to be a gimmick — are showing. Maybe it’s because Catherine the Great has already been given the series’ treatment within the last 12 months, courtesy of HBO, or because the series doesn’t quite know whether it wants to aim for ’80s-style lowbrow humor or something more satirical, but “The Great” can’t help but feel like the spare to a far greater heir.
With a pastel-tinged aesthetic drawing heavy comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antionette,” we meet the young Catherine (Elle Fanning). Sailing through the air on a flowered swing like a character from a Fragonard painting, Catherine is hopeless romantic whose family has lost their fortune. She marries well, from a financial standpoint, to the King of Russia, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Unlike other period sex dramas, most famously “The Tudors,” the relationship between Peter and Catherine is fraught, to say the least.
Where she describes losing her virginity in a beautifully florid speech, the camera closing in on Fanning’s perpetually glowing face and rosy cheekbones to highlight her beauty, Peter sees it as something he can multitask through while discussing ducks with his valet. The pair disagree on everything, from the need for war with Sweden to more impetuous things like Catherine just being a bit of a downer in Peter’s eyes.
Unlike “Marie Antionette,” where the emphasis is on their youth and inexperience, there’s little sense of time or history. The title itself even comes with the caveat that it’s “an occasionally true story,” implying that much of what we’re watching could be exaggerated. In that way, the reality of the Russian court during this time feels like like “The Favourite” and more like “Dickinson.” The series is short on anachronisms and random character cameos like the latter series. Instead, the comparison is felt in the tone. There’s a lightness to the world that doesn’t feel as onerous and bleak as “The Favourite” was.
It could be that this light comes from Fanning herself, the literal embodiment of the fairy princess — if this fairy princess dropped F-bombs and had a lot of sex. Fanning may sound like her “Sleeping Beauty” character but her Catherine is one stymied by the Russian kingdom, where women are praised for being dumb and the menfolk spend their days flinging fruit at each other and being petty. Fanning’s portrayal of the character is fun and lively, even if Catherine feels like a more naive take on Emma Stone’s Abigail. Catherine’s core narrative is her desire to depose Peter via a coup and rule Russia in the way her and her friends/followers wish it to be run.
Fanning aside, her bubbly personality is complemented by her maid Marial (Phoebe Fox) and Peter’s put-upon advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan). Fox is a dazzling scene-stealer, taking the various scripts and infusing them with a tone that does feel the most reminiscent of “The Favourite.” Her penchant for violence against Peter is tempered by her admiration for the Archbishop (Adam Godley) who, despite being in lock-step with the King, took care of her as a child. Dhawan’s Orlo is solid, in the “bumbling nerd who’s chronically reminded he’s a virgin” archetype.
Orlo’s character though touches on what makes “The Great” so hard to properly love: it often feels woefully immature. Where “The Favourite” had slick turns of phrase, “The Great” appears to revel in having its cast say curse words. This comes across the most explicitly through Hoult’s Peter. The young actor is definitely having fun, strutting around in leather pants and acting like the Russian equivalent of a rock star. He’s incredibly dense and hedonistic till a certain event causes him to possibly consider changing his ways. But it’s often hard to take him seriously or not find him grating when nearly ever sentence is punctuated with an F-bomb or him derogatorily referring to his penis. At best it goes towards the character’s immaturity, at worst, it’s lazy writing that seems like a child just discovered his new favorite words.
And it hurts to feel critical when the cast is so entertaining. Between Fanning, Fox, and Hoult there’s enough humor to derive from their performances to make things sail. But once the series attempts to engage with the political machinations of the war with Sweden and internal strife the acerbic humor just doesn’t gel. It almost feels like an R-rated parody swathed in some of the most breathtaking set and costume design you’re likely to see.
In the end, “The Great” doesn’t exactly live up to the title. Fanning and crew work wonders, but it’s unclear who this series is aimed at. It’s too raunchy for teen fans (the “Dickinson” crowd) and yet too low-brow for those who consume “Downton Abbey.” And if you enjoyed “The Favourite” this feels like a watered-down distillation of what made that movie work so perfectly.
“The Great” streams on Hulu May 15.