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Review: Wit charm and ruthlessness add up to a bingeable series in “The Great”

Irony and humor make “The Great” outstanding, funny and a little sad, like other leaders viewers may be familiar with.

By Solomon Smith, Political News Editor

Photo Courtesy of Hulu

One of the best satires about the presidency of Donald J. Trump yet, even if by accident, Hulu’s “The Great” paints a portrait of unrestrained power combined with hubris, stupidity and abject random cruelty. It is also hilarious.

Vulgar, rude, stupid and unlikeable Emperor Peter is a man-boy leader who is consistently measuring himself against his father the previous emperor, Peter the Great, and failing. This Peter’s guidance is an impending train wreck, a fact recognized by every person in a leadership position around the young ruler, but his followers plod on in an effort to survive or maintain and expand their own power.

The main protagonist, played by Nicolas Hoult, is a young Russian ruler surrounded by sycophants who, out of fear or avarice, agree with every action the king makes. Most are the decisions of an immature teenage boy: humiliating his military advisor, executing his chef and having sex with his best friends wife publicly.

The first real challenge in the young emperor’s life is Catherine, played by Elle Fanning, an antithesis to the emperor she marries. Her character is introduced as thoughtful, polite and graceful. She is well read, refined in her manner and cares about people; Peter dislikes her immediately.

The driving force of the series, created by Tony McNamara, is the planned usurpation of the king by an intelligent, but politically naive Catherine. Her allies are a former royal-turned-handmaiden Marial (Phoebe Fox) and a bookish royal advisor named Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), among others.

Hoult’s portrayal of the emperor is perfectly balanced. He plays a buffoon under the Dunning Kruger effect, incredibly out of his depth but too self-confident to know it and manages to humanize the character. There are moments when the audience is shown a boy who never managed to fill the shoes of his father and misses his mother. Hoult is able to give a character that could easily be a cartoon cutout the humanity that it needs, with an edge of menace.

Fanning’s Catherine manages to embody the grace and strength needed to stand out next to the outlandish emperor. She bears the brunt of the emotional weight and is the driving force of the series as she is swept up in a coup while learning some hard, personal lessons. Audiences will see a naïve girl experience love and cruelty, sometimes in the same episode.

Pairing the two excellent leads with McNamarra’s script makes it work. His other sort-of-history, “The Favorite,” also takes large bombastic characters and plays them against scheming courts and intelligent thoughtful foils. Originally a successful play, McNamarra’s next planned version was theater.

"It had been a play and a film, and I was always struggling with the fact it was such a massive story for a film,” said McNamarra in a Deadline Hollywood interview. “I wanted to tell it as a story that goes for years and years."

Something that could easily have been considered over the top feels like real history but accuracy is not part of this series, unfortunately. Know going in that this is not the story of Catherine the Great or her Russia. The ages of the characters, the political players and even the ethnicity of the cast are all, at best, adjacent to fact — which is perfectly fine. The dialogue is snappy and quick, with a direction that continually moves through the beautiful, opulent scenery.

The series calls itself an “occasionally true story” but viewers will appreciate that it is almost always funny. The complete first season is available through Hulu streaming services. Watch it.

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