The Daily Stream: The Great Doesn't Care About Prestige Period Shows (Or Facts)

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "The Great"

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: A self-described "Occasionally True Story" that evolves into "An Almost Entirely Untrue Story" by the end of season 2, "The Great" centers on a young Catherine II (Elle Fanning), who would go on to become Catherine the Great and the longest-reigning Empress in Russia's history. When the show begins in the 18th century, Catherine is an ambitious yet naïve outsider who hopes to use the teachings of the Enlightenment — a philosophical movement that values the pursuit of knowledge and ideals such as peace, equality, and progress — to bring the country into the future, believing that her new husband, the Russian Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), will whole-heartedly support her in this endeavor.

The only problem? Peter is a cruel a**hole who would rather spend his days killing things, having sex with his best friend Grigor's (Gwilym Lee) wife Georgina (Charity Wakefield), often right in front of Grigor, and merrily enjoying a life of debauchery in-between occasionally carrying out his royal duties, like having obligatory, impersonal intercourse with Catherine and barely listening to a word she says. In time, however, Catherine comes up with a plan to stage a coup against Peter and seize control of the throne for herself with the aid of a motley group of allies that includes her servant and former noblewoman Mariel (Phoebe Fox), Peter's frustrated counselor Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), and the aging, disillusioned General Velementov (Douglas Hodge). But even after her rebellion succeeds, Catherine comes to realize that changing Russia for the better will be much harder than she thought.

Why It's Essential Viewing

If you've seen director Yorgos Lanthimos' darkly comedic period film "The Favourite," which was co-written by "The Great" creator Tony McNamara, then you already have a good idea of what to expect from McNamara's show about Catherine the Great. This is a series where nary an episode goes by where someone or something isn't murdered (sometimes in comically brutal fashion, sometimes just brutally), people aren't conspiring against or manipulating one another, and, particularly in season 1, an acid-tongued Hoult isn't coming up with elaborately-worded insults before pulling a Logan Roy and telling others to "F*** off." (Not that those around him refrain from dropping f-bombs and other vulgar terms, either.) Of course, if you've seen "The Favourite," then you also know that McNamara is pretty dang good at the tonal balancing act required to make this hodgepodge of ingredients work. There are few other shows out there that could depict characters having deep conversations about the complexity of human emotions and what it takes to really change the world, then smoothly shift into a scene of people bonking each other's brains out, getting high on 18th century drugs, or casually killing someone for calling them a "d**khead."

As little as McNamara once cared for prestige pieces (having previously told Deadline, "I used to think, If I have to watch people tie their shoes with ribbons, I want to put a gun to my head"), he's delivered one that comes with all the trimmings you could ask for with "The Great," including splendid dresses, coats, hats, and wigs, as well as sumptuous sets combined with lovely footage of historical country houses, castles, and palaces in Europe. That he and his team have created a period show which, at the same time, actively thumbs its nose at the genre's prestigious leanings is all the more impressive, making "The Great" a rare, strange confection that fans of costume dramas can enjoy as much as those who typically avoid them at all costs.


Then there are the characters. Those who have avoided "The Great" because they fear it's a superficial #girlboss take on history need not fret. The series' version of Catherine, brought wonderfully to life by Fanning, is as messy and compelling a protagonist as you could ask for. Her ever-changing power dynamic with the people around is equally fascinating, be it her interactions with Peter's aunt Elizabeth (a magnificent Belinda Bromilow), whose oddball demeanor belies just how knowledgeable she is about the mysteries of the human heart and what it takes to rule a country, or her twisted love affair with Peter. Indeed, I spent much of season 2 worried the show's decision to keep Catherine's husband around post-coup would only do it harm (and, to be fair, it may yet in the future), only to be pleasantly surprised by just how hard "The Great" was willing to work to give him a satisfying arc and justify having Hoult (who's also terrific) remain part of the series for now.

Of course, as Catherine the Great experts have no doubt realized by this point, the one thing "The Great" doesn't even remotely care about is historical accuracy. (This is a show where, among other things, the stapler is invented about 100 years too early.) But if you can accept this is a series that's more invested in unearthing the truths of human nature than sticking to the facts, you might just find "The Great" to be far, well, greater than any by-the-book biopic about Catherine could hope to be.