The Great is your everyday story of a girl who marries a jerk. The Great is the everyday story of a woman who marries an abusive man and plots to kill him. The Great is the everyday story of a young queen who sees everything wrong with the kingdom and plans to make things better. The Great is a comedy version of the secret origin of Catherine the Great.
The Great is based on stuff that kind of really happened. Catherine (Elle Fanning) was a young German noblewoman who married Peter the III of Russia. Eventually, she overthrew him in a coup and her rule turned Russia into a superpower for the first time. She also introduces many progressive policies, including improving the rights of women, pushing the sciences and the arts. Creator and writer Tony McNamara take the basic touchstones of Catherine's story, which was already intense with death threats, betrayals, and the casual brutality of the Russian court, and turns it into a farce, one where people die. A lot. Thus, the origin story of how Catherine becomes Great becomes a sitcom.
McNamara decides that all the brutality, threats to life, sociopathy, and pathology that ran through the Russian court was really a sitcom. In sitcoms, characters are largely unchanging types, their foibles, and flaws driving the story and the comedy week in, week out. Thus, Fanning's Catherine always starts out with a grand plan to make things better for everyone, but her naivete and entitlement mean her plans will go horribly awry before long. Much of the comedy also comes from Nicholas Hoult revealing previously-untapped comic talent as the narcissistic, sociopathic, and homicidal manchild Peter, around whom the entire court has to revolve lest he has them murdered. The central dynamic of the show is their dysfunctional marriage as Catherine tries to make her high-minded moves around Peter who's only interested in sex, violence, and killing for fun.
A good sitcom also depends on an ensemble cast of oddballs revolving around the central duo: Sacha Dewan as Catherine's milquetoast ally Count Orlo, Phoebe Fox as Catherine's snarky noblewoman best friend Marial, Adam Godley as Marial's cousin and court archbishop Archie who represents the Orthodox Church that Catherine and Peter have to appease, Douglas Hodge as General Velementov, Gwilym Lee and Bayo Gbadamosi as Peter's best friends and hangers-on Dymov and Arkady, Charity Wakefield as Dymov's wife Georgina and Peter's mistress, Berlinda Bromilow as Peter's aunt Elizabeth the seasoned court survivor whose real-life version was much nastier and more ruthless than she is here. They are all horrible people, but they are also comedy goofballs here.
We compare The Great to Game of Thrones because both share themes of Power and the yearning for the Good Ruler, the latter being the idea that the right leader might come along and make everything okay. Everything that happens in the show revolves around that notion, except The Great takes a more cynical view that even the most well-intentioned ruler is massively flawed – by their desire to take power, for starters – and still mess things up, because to wield power is to destroy lives in the process. Peasants and citizens in The Great are often casually and accidentally killed by both Catherine and Peter's decisions, hers because she didn't think it through and his because he doesn't care. He wants to wage war, she wants to stop war – they both get people killed. It's horribly funny because otherwise, it would just be horrible. There may not be magic in The Great, but there are a lot of scary monsters – it's virtually the entire cast, and they're also hilarious. The most profound and subversion lesson that The Great teaches is "DON'T TRUST LEADERS!"
The Great is streaming on Hulu.