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‘The Great’: Would-be satire of Russian empress Catherine isn’t even good

Hulu series wants to be a witty and dark historical comedy but doesn’t succeed.

Catherine (Elle Fanning) marries the Emperor of Russia, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), in “The Great.”
Hulu

If only “The Great” were as great as “The Great” seems to think “The Great” is, it’d be pretty great.

But this 10-part limited series from Hulu is more tiresome then clever, more sadistically off-putting than wickedly funny, more overwrought than impactful. It desperately wants to be a witty and fanciful historical social satire about famous royalty a la “The Favourite” (and in fact the show’s creator, Tony McNamara, co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for that 2018 gem), but that very obviousness works against it.

Less than a year after the HBO miniseries “Catherine the Great” starring Helen Mirren as the Empress of Russia in the late 18th century, the American actress Elle Fanning affects a British accent to play the Prussian-born, 19-year-old Catherine, who is all quivering excitement on the day she meets her intended, Peter, the King of Russia (Nicholas Hoult). The honeymoon is literally over when Catherine learns Peter is a petulant, narcissistic, cruel and stupid man. (On their wedding night, he mounts her without so much as a kiss or making eye contact and continues a conversation with his right-hand man during the decidedly underwhelming and very quick liaison.)

As in Sofia Coppola’s candy-colored “Marie Antoinette,” the sets and costumes are a symphony of bright hues, as Catherine and the gossiping gaggle of mean girls, aka Ladies in Waiting, are forever changing in and out of elaborate outfits. (One of the ladies starts a vicious rumor about Catherine and a horse, just to be awful to her.) Fanning has the rosy-cheeked look of an old-fashioned, live-action Disney princess, but she drops f-bombs like a character in a Scorsese film, and her sunny optimism soon gives way to a steely determination to overthrow the horrible and criminally inept Peter and take the throne, for the betterment of the Russian people.

Nicholas Hoult (who was wonderful as Harley in “The Favourite”) romps and stomps all over the place as Peter, who is one of the worst human beings ever seen in any period piece, ever. He gifts Catherine with an apparently domesticated bear on their wedding night — and casually shoots and kills the poor creature a while later at an indoor party. He verbally and physically abuses her. He takes great delight in fornicating with his best friend’s wife, often in view of his supposed friend. He declares war on Sweden for no reason other than he wants to be considered as great as his late father and sends thousands of men to their deaths. He hosts a dinner party for his top military brass and serves dessert on platters that also contain the severed heads of Swedish soldiers.

Much of this played for black comedy, but it just ain’t funny. We share Catherine’s disgust for this daft lout, but the complicated machinations of her plot to oust him grow more tedious with each passing episode. As Catherine’s loyal maid Marial (Phoebe Fox) keeps telling her, just kill the idiot and get on with it. Put us all out of our misery.