Black Adder Meets Caligula in Hulu's The Great

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The Great Season 1

THE GREAT is a comedic farce that loosely follows the biography of Catherine the Great. Equal parts BLACK ADDER and CALIGULA, the series goes out of its way to make the profane mundane, with palace life centered completely around copulation and killing.

Elle Fanning plays Catherine, the naive German woman brought to Russia to be a wife to Emperor Peter II (Nicholas Hoult), an overgrown infant with an inferiority complex instilled by his mother and father that he compensates for by doing whatever he pleases. As he is the emperor, who exercises capriciously the right of life over death of any and all of his subjects, nobody dares cross him. Indeed, most of the palace court are too daft to put up anything like an argument. Hoult plays the emperor much like Hugh Laurie's Prince Regent from BLACK ADDER, only with no filter, a leporine libido, and the attention span of a ferret on sugar cubes.

Catherine, however, is a woman of learning, with a great desire to see life become better for everyone through arts and sciences -- things that have been forbidden in Russia by the church, overseen by the Archbishop (Adam Godley). Disillusioned to find her lot is merely to serve as the planting ground for Peter's seed, from a plow that's furrowed many a rut, including Georgina (Charity Wakefield), the wife of his best friend, Grigor (Gwilym Lee). Oh, it's not palace intrigue -- Peter simply doesn't care, and does things right in front of Grigor, or anyone else for that matter. Huzzah!

Although Catherine is German and the rest of the cast are Russian, THE GREAT presents itself like a community theater play, featuring a diverse cast of actors and not even the hint of an accent. Furthermore, much of the wordplay and phrases are quite anachronistic, to make it more appealing to a more lowbrow audience who may feel they are getting some of that DOWNTON ABBEY class by watching it. For example, in one scene, Catherine exclaims she will not be content to "sit on the sidelines," a term that would mean nothing to the Russians of the middle 1700s, when not even rugby had been invented yet. (But we are treated to seeing how Catherine invents the game of ninepins for the easily-entertained ladies of the court.)

The language and situations make this decidedly for mature audiences, although visually there's hardly anything in the way of nudity. The graphic assault is more in the way of blood and dismemberments, as Russia continus its senseless war against Sweden -- whom, we find out, is ruled by just as much of a loony bin as is Russia. It's entertaining for what it is -- as it points out, "an occasionally true story," but it's not near compelling enough to make it something to binge.

3.5 / 5.0