At a first glance, the historical (though perhaps don’t take that adjective too literally) comedy-drama The Great looks suspiciously like a TV spinoff of Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 The Favourite – which isn’t too surprising, since both were (co-)written by the Australian playwright Tony McNamara. Both Lanthimos’ film and the series are bleak, black farces about incompetent, neurotic rulers, the people at their mercy, and central female characters that attempt to change things by manipulating the people in power. Both are irreverent, blatantly sexual to the point of crudeness, and ruthless, depicting the deadly ridiculousness of hereditary rule, and the corrupting effects of power.
Seeing how there isn’t much that’s even remotely comparable to the works of Yorgos Lanthimos on TV – or anywhere, really, other than in Lanthimos’ films -, it’s definitely unique and not a little thrilling to find something like The Great on TV. However, it doesn’t entirely do The Great a favour to watch it through that particular lens, because while it is undoubtedly entertaining as pitch-black historical comedy, it doesn’t have the same kind of sharp, icy edge that The Favourite has. It is only when looking at what the series does differently that it truly comes into its own.
In its first (and, to date, only) season The Great is something of an origin story/revisionist satire of Catherine the Great’s early days as the wife of Russian Emperor Peter (apparently an amalgam of Peters II and III… which mathematically would make him Peter 2.5?). There are parallels between the series and The Favourite in structure, characters, style and themes: McNamara’s language is bawdy, even crass, and many of his characters are self-centered and corrupt. His interests seem to lie less in the specific historical settings than in telling stories about the games people play when they have absolute power undeservedly, or when they wish to lift themselves out of powerlessness – especially when the latter characters are women in situations where women traditionally don’t hold much power.
So far, so The Favourite – and the early episodes of The Great have a similar flavour to Lanthimos’ film, but they lack the scalpel-sharp direction that The Favourite has. While Lanthimos’ films are nominally comedic, the director has little interest in generating laughs, or indeed empathy, at least not in conventional ways. There is a chilling austerity to his films (such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) that makes them supremely uncomfortable to watch. The Great‘s episodes were directed by various TV directors that don’t go nearly as much for the jugular, which gives the series a strangely genial tone at times – when these characters talk about doing horrible things to others, or even when they actually go and do those horrible things, there is something of a shrug and a wink to it. People suffer and die, but The Great doesn’t make us feel this, so that early in the season the series can sometimes come across as a more adult Horrible Histories, albeit with a more feminist slant. The Favourite, just a bit watered down and with more jokes.
However, as The Great progresses, it finds its own voice, and with it the teeth that it lacks in its first few episodes. Compared to The Favourite, it has a much larger cast of central characters – Catherine (Elle Fanning) and Peter (Nicholas Hoult – remember him from The Favourite?), obviously, but also the wiley servant Marial (Phoebe Fox), the wavering intellectual Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), the Orthodox Archbishop (Adam Godley), Peter’s kooky aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) and many more – and these take time to develop. Even just listing them, they sound like one-dimensional side characters in some historical farce, and at first this is very much what many of them seem to be, but The Great takes its time to develop these characters into something more interesting, nuanced and even surprising. It lures us into feeling sympathy for some of them, only to show them to be capable of horrible deeds, while others – especially Catherine – it allows us to identify with to then make clear the sometimes deadly limitations of their idealism.
Where Lanthimos keeps his characters and his audience at a distance from one another, and to offputting but intriguing effect, The Great fools us first into thinking that it may bark but it doesn’t really have much of a bite – and then showing itself capable of chomping down hard and drawing blood. Where Lanthimos’ characters often fail to grow, stuck in their roles and neuroses, The Great gives us a sense that growth is possible – even for characters as id-driven and arrested in their development as Emperor Peter, but also for starry-eyed idealist Catherine. To some extent, this makes The Great more conventional than The Favourite, but honestly? I’m not sure a multi-season TV series could keep up the kind of harshness that Lanthimos brings to the table, or that anyone would be able to watch, let alone finance, it. Aside from experiments such as David Lynch’s recentish return to Twin Peaks, TV is a more conventional medium, and sometimes it has to give its audience some of what they want in order to get its own way. By assuming a softer, more pleasing demeanour – while keeping up the court intrigue, sex jokes and punchlines – The Great, much like its central character, has a chance to grow into something that works as comedy as well as drama, that has an emotional pull as well as providing more than just a hint that it will have the required nastiness to do its material justice. We’ve only seen the very early reign of Catherine, and there’s plenty to like already. I half suspect that this series, if it can continue as planned, will find the sharp steeliness to stab us between the ribs when it needs to.