You know the part in The Favourite where Emma Stone’s character is pushed backward down a hill by Nicholas Hoult? Or when Olivia Coleman is crying and binge-eating cake and vomiting it back up to eat more? The scenes are funny but also shocking and dark and you’re not really sure if you should laugh or cringe. I mention them because that tone — irreverent and a bit deranged — is pretty much what you get with The Great but magnified by Russian vodka, a live bear, and a great deal more backstabbing.
Hulu’s The Great is a very historically inaccurate take on the story of Catherine the Great, who overthrew her dull and incompetent husband, Peter III, and went on to rule Russia for 34 years in the late 18th century. The show stars Elle Fanning as Catherine and brings in Nicholas Hoult to play a bawdy, sociopathic Peter III. It doesn’t cover Catherine’s reign but reimagines her early years: her introduction to the noxious Russian court up until her successful coup.
Its similarities to The Favourite are due, in part, to their common creators: Tony McNamara, who co-wrote the film, adapted The Great from his 2008 play. As a period drama, The Great falls somewhere between The Favourite and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette: It’s beautiful and lush, all satin skirts and pink cheeks, but also gruesome, full of vomit, poop, and many severed heads.
The other thing The Great has in common with The Favourite is Nicholas Hoult, which is also why — in spite of its sometimes meandering episodes — you should stick with the show. His Peter is mercurial and childish in a way that might just feel obnoxious if it weren’t tempered by flashes of insecurity and depression borne from various childhood traumas. And for a swaggering king figure who loves to fight and womanize, Peter is written with a streak of effeminacy, at times donning long skirts and accessorizing with his dead mother’s pearls. He has the show’s best lines (“someone should work out what goes on between a chap and his mother — there’d be money in that”) and is the kind of narcissist that mistakes a coup attempt (smothering with a pillow) as foreplay. In short, he’s totally reprehensible but a delight to watch.
Speaking of foreplay, this show is also shockingly horny. One episode opens with Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) masturbating in a hallway to a statue of Peter the Great. Emperor Peter, meanwhile, is constantly having loud, public sex with one of the court ladies, while her husband, Peter’s second-in-command, looks stoically on. Basically, if you like history, sex, and actually laughing out loud, this one is for you. And if you don’t, well, there’s always Catherine the Great on HBO.