Warning: this review contains spoilers for the first episode of The Great.
I’ll admit it: When my friends suggested we watch The Great on Hulu together virtually this weekend, I rolled my eyes. During a moment of global stress and anxiety, I just couldn’t muster the energy to invest in another corset-constrained, modesty-exalting period drama: Give me the staticky background noise of Love Island, or give me blessed silence.
The pilot’s opening scenes—in which a young Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) keels manically back and forth on a swing evoking Fragonard’s famous portrait—did nothing to erase my doubts.
Then Catherine set off to meet her new husband, Emperor Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult), and everything changed. Fanning is delightful to watch as an anxious yet impassioned Catherine, but it’s Hoult who establishes the show’s deliberately off-kilter tone early on, greeting his new wife with a cruel dismissal and leading his army of sycophants in laughter. Hoult’s Peter is a cosseted, crude man-boy, and as beastly as he is—he meets Fanning’s demureness with equal and opposite sleaze—the result is uproariously good TV.
I should have known from a cursory Google search that The Great wasn’t going to be the formulaic costume drama I was fearing. After all, it was created and penned by The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara, who knows his way around the art of refined bitchery. That’s exactly what we get when Catherine joins the ladies of society for their cherished game of rolling colored balls across a lawn. (That’s it, that’s the whole game.) And one of the first episode’s sharpest moments comes when Catherine’s handmaid Marial (Phoebe Fox) comes across her preparing to attempt suicide and encourages her to stage a coup against Peter—all while sardonically making it clear that if Catherine goes through with her attempt, Maria will be forced clean up the mess.
The Great rivals Veep and Killing Eve for the sheer amount of NSFW bon mots tossed off by its main characters—I found myself unable to stop thinking about the line “Apparently she fucked a horse before she got here. Huzzah!” But its rudeness is beautifully offset by its visual majesty. (The costume designer is Emma Fryer.) Fanning’s long white-blond tresses and colorful gowns pop against a mixture of desolate woods and perfectly manicured lawns.
One of the most compelling scenes from the first episode is one where Catherine attempts an escape from Russia in a trunk and Peter directs his henchmen to throw the trunk in a river. As Catherine struggles for air, only to be salvaged from the water at the last moment and thrown to the ground gasping, Peter stands above her, smug and triumphant: She’s terrified, to be sure, but there’s a steely glint in her eye, one that warns the viewer not to count her out just yet. The Great pulls off the rare feat of reveling in silliness without getting lost in it, which makes intensely dramatic moments like the one described above feel earned, not stagey.
On the heels of Mrs. America and Hulu’s own Hillary Clinton docuseries, it’s surprisingly refreshing to see a portrait of a female leader that doesn’t idealize her. Catherine is on the side of justice, to be sure, but she’s fallible too, and the series gets plenty of laughs out of her predicament. So does the audience, along with a gripping who-will-prevail power clash and an escapist glimpse at thoroughly old-fashioned luxury. If you’re hunting for a show to lift you out of your present circumstances, you couldn’t ask for better.
Originally Appeared on Vogue