The Great was recommended to me by my father-in-law.
He described it as “a funny take on Catherine the Great’s life.”
I can say without reservation that it is indeed about Catherine the Great’s life, but I’m currently having a full blown existential crisis about whether it’s funny or not. I did laugh–quite a lot actually–but at the same time it left me feeling somehow both hollow inside and filled with gleeful anticipation. It’s a combination of emotions that is honestly unnerving.
The first season is over, and I’ll have to wait an inordinately long time to see more. I figured what better way to pass the time than to write a review for people who might still be on the fence about Hulu’s “*occasionally true” dramedy.
So, sit down, grab something to drink, and let me regale you with each morsel of this delectable treat.
A Humorous start
The show starts with Catherine, a young girl without a single article or adjective proceeding her name, telling her friend (who might as well be an extra who wandered onto the set that day) that she is going to be married to Peter, Emperor of Russia. The scene is brief and sets the tone for the first half of the episode, with her friend incredulously saying “No” over and over as Catherine can only reply with “YES!” every time, until she is suddenly in a carriage saying “DA!” and pouring over volumes of Russian literature.
What follows is a series of almost slapstick scenes as she is presented to Peter, married, and subsequently thrown headfirst into the gaping maw of the Russian aristocracy.
Peter is the very model of an irresponsible ruler. He takes no interest in the war he’s started. He spends money on ridiculous things, like a bear as a wedding gift for his bride. And his sense of humor is tone deaf even to his most obsequious sycophants.
In other words: He’s a giant man-child
Catherine, whose family had fallen on hard times before the start of the show, takes everything in stride. She is completely determined to squeeze every ounce of joy she can from her new life as empress.
In a scene set immediately before her marriage is consummated, she regales her handmaiden, Marial, with a grandiloquent description of how she anticipates her first night with the Emperor going. The words flow from her like a poem, and they all paint a picture of someone terribly naïve. Whatever face you’re making during this scene will be mirrored perfectly by Marial, I guarantee it.
Her newest “friends” are the wives and mistresses of the various men in Peter’s court. Catherine quickly realizes that these women have been inured to the doldrums of being kept women and have become obedient dolls with barely a thought between them. They prattle about hats, fashion, and affairs, where Catherine would rather discuss great works of literature. They throw colored balls in the courtyard for hours as a source of entertainment, where she would seek to better herself and those around her. This is where you start to get a sense of who she really is underneath her relentlessly optimistic façade.
Things take a turn when Catherine asks Peter if she can try to make a difference by starting a school. He, in his buffoonish way, agrees and thinks it a great Idea (as long as it will shut her up). Then, he finds out she plans to teach women. This idea is so anathema to him that he does the most mature and sane thing he can do: He has the schoolhouse burned to the ground.
This is where the overall tone of the show shifts.
There were indicators early on that something was not right and that Peter was basically a sociopath, but we as the audience were blinded by the humor of the show and the juxtaposition of Catherine’s cheery optimism against the reality of her new life.
Suddenly, Peter’s eccentricities are shown in a different light. His aloofness becomes a terrible lack of empathy. What seemed like physical comedy bits are, in fact, cruel acts of abuse. Everything funny or remotely likeable about him turns sour and repugnant.
It is an amazing and terrible realization.
One of the most amazing things about The Great is its ability to dance beautifully between somber and hilarious, inspiring and depressing, and eloquent to the depths of vulgarity (you will hear the word “pussy” more during this show than the whole rest of your life combined). One moment you think you’re safe because it’s been a non-stop laugh riot, and the next you’re teary-eyed at a display of genuine humanity. Of course, that only lasts so long before you get sucker punched by a dose of reality that leaves you in stunned silence as the credits start to roll.
It was impressive in the first episode, but the remaining nine display a mastery that always leaves you on your toes. You never know when they’re going to pull the rug out from under you… and sometimes they don’t, just so that they can really surprise you later when you realize that you’re not standing on the rug anymore: it’s been rolled up and is on a collision course with your face.
Sock and Buskin
While at first they might seem two dimensional, the characters at the heart of this story are each multifaceted individuals with many–often conflicting–feelings and goals.
One of the best examples of this is Peter, Emperor of Russia. He is probably one of the most interesting figures in the entire show. He is equal parts vile and pitiable. He was genuinely revolting at times, but moments later he would show a childlike understanding of the world. It was sometimes hard to hate him, but other times, that’s all I could do.
A prime example of this effect is Grigor, Peter’s best friend. Peter thinks nothing of sleeping with Grigor’s wife, because he is the Emperor, and can do as he pleases. Grigor knows this and is a soul eternally conflicted. On the one hand, he loves Peter as a brother and would do anything for him. On the other hand, he wants to kill Peter for sleeping with his wife. It is a conundrum that you can see etched into every scene between the two of them.
Another thing that The Great manages to do well is put a spotlight on character growth.
Orlo, who starts the show as a bit of an obsequious coward, has his courage slowly burn brighter as Catherine stokes the fires of revolution within him. It is a markéd change, and has a singular catalyzing moment to lean on, but for the most part it is subtle and takes place over the course of the show. Most of the characters go through this in one way or another, and sometimes not for the best.
Of course, the character who exemplifies this the most is Catherine herself. She goes from doe-eyed innocent to planning a full blown coup.
While the changes are impressive, what I find most impressive is the way the writers manage to change the characters without compromising who they are.
Sure, Catherine learns to play “The Game” in order to survive, but her endless optimism and hope for the future are clearly what drive her decisions. Even when it gets squashed into the mud, you can still see the person she was under all the muck.
Viva La Revolución
The main focus of the show’s story is revolution. It is about Catherine trying to make a better Russia by way of political maneuvering and slowly winning allies to her side. While the story itself was never going to astonish, it was held aloft by both its characters and the tones they helped set. Without the humor, we would be left with Game of Thrones. Conversely, if it went full funny, we might as well be watching Blackadder.
Watching Catherine as she struggled with Peter, learned the complexities of being Russian, befriended the people of the court, and planned a coup would have been fine with less complex characters or a single tone. However, the combination of the complicated characters and the constant shift in overall tone made this a show worth binging.
A Greater Russia
The Great earned both the article and the adjective in its title.
I went into this show expecting something along the lines of Parks and Rec or Community. Although both are great shows in their own rights, I was met with something altogether different. It made me recontextualize what I was watching in a 180° that I’m pretty sure I’m going to need a neck brace for.
It’s a great show that manages to transcend what it seems to be, and it may be the best example of the word “dramedy” I’ve ever seen. By the final episode, I was figuratively on the edge of my seat, but my stomach was literally squirming. And while all that was going on, The Great still managed to make me laugh out loud. Accomplishing one of those tasks is pretty impressive, but all of them at the same time takes real finesse, and this show has it in spades.
For all of these reasons, I’m giving the first season a whopping 9/10. It went well beyond my expectations.
So, to anyone on the fence about watching this show–to anyone who thought that it was just going to be a schlocky comedy set against the rise of Catherine the Great and chose to avoid it–I urge you to watch the first season. It is well worth the time.