For comfort, persons of a certain sort cling to historical drama. Nice costumes, polite people, women wearing pinafores and nobody interrupting things by whipping out a smart phone. If anything is to be whipped out it’s a pistol, which has precisely one bullet in it.
This column will not begrudge anyone the pleasure of gauzy frock operas and fellas doffing their hats to women and members of the gentry. Whatever gets you through the dark nights of the soul.
The Great (starts on Amazon Prime Video on Saturday) has enormous sport with the genre. It is officially described as, “A genre-bending, anti-historical ride through 18th-century Russia.” And it is coming from a co-writer of the Oscar-winning movie The Favourite, about shenanigans in the court of Queen Anne of England. It ups the ante from caustic comedy of manners to outright blazing satire with formidable bite. This series definitely amounts to fun and frolics with the story of Catherine the Great.
It is also breezily described as “partly true” and veers far from the actual historical accounts of how Catherine (a relishing-it Elle Fanning) was married off to Peter of Russia, came to loathe him and love Russia. At first Catherine is merely a precocious but naive teenager. “They have bears, I hope I get one. They look cute,” she says on her way to Russia. Then Peter’s incompetence and childish sadism come into focus and Catherine decides to manipulate her way to Empress, who leads all of Russia by dint of her fierce determination.
There’s cockeyed fun at the beginning. When Catherine arrives to meet Peter, he gazes on her with amusement. “You look taller in your portrait,” he says coldly. Then, to his retinue of lackeys, says, “Send her back, get me a taller one.” He’s joking, because he could, if he wanted, do exactly that. Soon enough, Catherine realizes her new husband is a self-absorbed, thin-skinned nitwit. There is an undertow of connection to contemporary politics here. As one reviewer in the United States put it, “A country being held hostage by an overconfident idiot. Sound familiar?"
As things progress, the humour gets much darker and the sheer, unthinking savagery of Peter begins to overshadow the narrative; a few scenes will make you gulp. Interestingly, like another bumbling egomaniac currently in power, his strange need for the approval of others is both comical and pathetic. There is also an ongoing theme of sexual harassment. At one point, Catherine asks her handmaiden/sidekick Marial how the evening’s events unfolded. The reply is, “Avoided rape. You?”
At 10 parts, The Great (made for Hulu) is probably too long and it indulges in grotesque scenes that certainly have a point – the chasm between life at a royal court and ordinary life – but can seem like overload. At its best, in early episodes it is a sizzling coming-of-age story about a young woman transcending the limitations placed on her by boorish men. Fun and frolics, for sure, if you’re able to tolerate historical drama being burned to the ground for sheer sport and a dash of rage.
Also airing this weekend
Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020 (Saturday, CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, 8 p.m.) is a pandemic-period special. Former president Barack Obama delivers a commencement message for the U.S.'s high school seniors. And joining him are, among others, LeBron James, Malala Yousafzai, the Jonas Brothers, Pharrell Williams, Megan Rapinoe, and Ben Platt.
Scandalous: The Untold Story of The National Enquirer (Sunday, CNN 10 p.m.) is way more substantial than many CNN one-hour probes. A serious and hard-hitting doc, it examines the history of the notorious supermarket tabloid with solid and scathing intent. At first, we learn, the Enquirer was mainly gory, but when it wanted to be sold in supermarkets it had to shift focus and appeal to housewives. Former reporter Judith Regan says that meant running gossip for readers who, “wanted to know, essentially, that celebrities suffered too.” From there the tabloid’s real scoops are chronicled, and then it’s on to its secret and highly charged relationships with certain politicians. A fascinating trip into the American psyche.
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Lady Dynamite (Netflix). It’s a surreal comedy that takes the meta, self-referential style of such shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm to a new level of convolution. At times it’s a beautifully painful comedy about mental illness. Created by actor-comedian Maria Bamford with some cohorts, it stars Bamford as a version of herself in three different stages of her life. In the present, she’s the focus of a falling-apart mockumentary. In the past, she’s getting breaks in Hollywood and in a lot of commercials. In between these two stages, she’s at home in Duluth, Minn., being treated for depression, bipolar disorder and hypomania. It’s bewildering at first, but it becomes gorgeously knit together into a ribald journey through life.
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