There are many new currents in contemporary storytelling across the genres of film, television and the novel. One of the more startling developments is the rise of speculative period-piece drama on TV.
The Great (season two is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video) stands out in particular. The opening credits always contain an asterisk and the declaration, “An occasionally true story.” Darn good idea to include that, because like a number of other series, The Great looks like a concerted attempt to burn the Masterpiece Theatre style of storytelling to the ground. Beautiful costumes, yes. Politeness and restraint, definitely not. There’s an injection of ironic modernity – you could call it sexed-up, but there is something else emerging.
The series is enormously enjoyable as comedy – and as an assault on the pieties of the period piece. Did Catherine the Great of Russia (Elle Fanning) come across two children kicking around a human head as they might kick a soccer ball? Probably not. (Don’t fret, it’s more weird than gory.) And yet, given how little we know about day-to-day life back then, away from official history, it might have happened.
What unfolds as this zany but smart series rolls along, is less a tale about Catherine, Empress Regnant of Russia in the 18th century, than it is about power, sex and savagery – and wittily so. Catherine has blossomed from slightly awed young wife to pragmatic cynic and pushed her husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) from power. Things are messy, though, because she’s pregnant with his child, and much as she despises the sadistic dolt, she doesn’t want him killed. Yet.
What she wants to see is her grand plan to modernize Russia put into motion. This means being ruthless, but there is always a hitch. As Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), one of the schemers in Peter’s court – now on Catherine’s side – explains to her, “There is the poetry of what we want, and the blood and grind of how we get it.” Catherine believes in reason and rational thinking, ideas she’s imported into Russia, while around her are men who believe the best way to get results is threatening to behead somebody.
There are anachronisms galore, but you do have the feeling that the series is accurate about both the treachery and debauchery that’s going on. Later in this season, Catherine’s mother (Gillian Anderson, perfectly cast) joins the seething stew of conspiracy. In truth, Catherine’s mother was dead at this point in history, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s all part of the gleeful deconstruction of the frocks-and-etiquette school of period drama.
The first season of The Great (there are now two seasons of 10 episodes each) was seen by some as a commentary on the Trump era, with the crass, unqualified Peter being equated with the former U.S. president. While there are hints of a political subtext, the real engine of the series – created by Australian playwright and screenwriter Tony McNamara, who may have kickstarted a trend with his darkly comic period film The Favourite – is its challenge to the normal parameters of period drama and historical fiction in general.
Netflix’s hit Bridgerton has something of the same energy – the diverse cast and candour about sexual pleasure makes it a very different type of romance. It has raunch in a way that nothing on Masterpiece Theatre ever did.
But one of the key accomplishments in this slow demolishing of the observances and sanctities of the period-piece genre did actually air in that PBS slot. That was Sanditon, Andrew Davies’s spectacularly saucy adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, which caused a real stir when it debuted in 2019. Free to fill in the gaps left by Austen, Davies created something that horrified some critics and viewers in the U.K., who thought it had too much Love Island-style dramatics and not enough of Austen’s reticence. It was lavish, in the way most British period pieces are, but it had an erotic charge – including one brief scene of sex al fresco – that was absolutely delightful and refreshing to see. Yes, it was sexed-up Jane Austen, but all the more humane and relevant for that.
There are other examples to be found, and this column will return to the topic. For now, take note that The Great is sometimes scintillating, and often subversive is several ways – not the least of which is its shift away from conventional and utterly undemanding, escapist period-piece prissiness.
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