Martin Carr reviews The Great season 2…
There is something obscenely opulent about this Hulu original, which makes it almost irresistible. On the face of it, a comedy about Russian revolutions, over indulgent royalty and dialogue defined by a deluge of four-letter words should never see daylight. Something which makes The Great not only a minor miracle, but one which keeps giving in its second season.
The fluctuating fortunes of Catherine the Great and her assembled court is dynamite television. Tony McNamara, who continues to helm this series, has such an elegance with words both foul and flowery, that at times this feels like an intellectual Carry On film. Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult are off the reservation, creating characteristic friction whilst dodging salacious salvos amongst the mayhem. Meanwhile, verbal barbs come from all quarters, Catherine continues manipulating her way into power and hangers on complain and copulate their way through every episode.
Elsewhere, the f bomb is dropped with consistent regularity, while Tony McNamara adds further spice by venturing further up the food chain of vulgarities. This enlightened use of foul language keeps characters contemporary, reactions spontaneous and politics barely worth mentioning. Amongst the ensemble there are numerous stand out performances from the likes of Phoebe Fox as Marial, Douglas Hodge as Velementov and Adam Godley as the Archbishop.
Each has their own agenda; yet each remains a simpering subject whilst feathering their own nest. Such blatant self-interest mixed in with the frenetic farce and lashings of sex, make this second season a scorcher. Spiritual epiphanies and genuine character progression also imply that The Great is looking for longevity beyond its shock value. There are genuine hints of pathos between Catherine and Peter, that not only add an unexpected dimension to their relationship, but gives them both some much needed soft edges.
Both Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning clearly love the language and thrive on its undulating cadence. This not only allows for implication through intonation, but gives them the opportunity to create subtlety where none exists. Welcome additions also include Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s mother Joanna, who slots right in and lights fires elsewhere.
As the political machinations reach fever pitch and this sordid costume drama threatens to implode, Tony McNamara keeps a tight hold on narrative never allowing The Great to devolve into chaos. Rarely does a piece of writing actively entertain, intentionally educate and subversively titillate simultaneously. In an era where opulence and poverty were so narrowly divided and bodice ripping copulation was a national pastime, it remains a wonder anything ever got done.
Whatever the ins and outs of Catherine the Great, there is no doubt that this series encourages audiences to learn. There is satire, there is sarcasm and some genuinely pitch-black one-liners, but on the strength of this second run, Hulu should know they are onto a good thing.