Looking at the trailer, my first impression of THE GREAT, an Amazon Prime series that reimagines the rise of Catherine the Great who deposed her husband and ruled Russia in the 1700s, was it was frivolous fluff that culturally over-modernized history to make it cute and leaned too hard into a social message I basically agree with but didn’t need hitting my head like a hammer. I was very happy to be utterly wrong. It’s damned good.
In the first season, Catherine (Elle Fanning, who grew on me just as the show ended up doing until I admired both) is a maid living in Germany and is excited about her coming betrothal to Peter, Emperor of Russia (played with a weird mix of savage comedy and just enough sympathy by Nicholas Hoult). Arriving at the Russian court, she receives one shock after another as her naive fantasies about being an empress are shattered. Peter is a childish, spoiled buffoon; out of fear, his court is filled with fawning sycophants routinely engaging in depravity out of boredom; and Russia itself is a giant slave state oppressed by the aristocracy and the orthodox church.
Over the course of the season, Catherine hopes she can inspire reforms, only to be regularly frustrated, even as Peter grains a grudging respect for her beyond her being merely a vessel for his heirs. So she begins a plot to depose her husband and take his throne for herself.
The result is fairly light, compressed, even frivolous, a strong first impression that lasts. It could have gone all the way with that and served up a titillating (horny) court drama blending history with contemporary culture for laughs while hammering a feminist message. Instead, THE GREAT’s creators put the work in to make something that is witty, funny, charming, and engaging, a story whose overall message works because the viewer discovers it for themselves. The characters are terrifically drawn and complex, even though they could as easily have been phoned in as caricatures. The show is surprisingly meaty, an exception to my usual binge watching as each episode felt complete, like I’d watched a movie. The pacing is solid, the sets beautiful, and there’s just enough real history to keep it more or less honest in a meta sense. As I watched the first season, delightful surprise turned to grudging respect for the writers and directors and finally to outright admiration. By the end, I was a fan.
Overall, THE GREAT is not particularly demanding, but it is a lot of fun, a rare entertainment that feels light while delivering something far weightier and solid.
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