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Hulu Takes On Catherine The Great In A Series That's More Funny Than Factual

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. In the 2018 movie "The Favourite," Olivia Colman won an Oscar for her portrayal of the 18th-century British monarch Queen Anne. That comic story about an increasingly devious power struggle within the palace walls was co-written by Tony McNamara. Ten years before "The Favourite" was filmed, McNamara wrote a play about another powerful 18th-century female ruler. It was called "The Great" and centered on the young German woman who was chosen to marry Peter III, the descendant of Russia's Peter the Great. Eventually, in 1762, the empress known as Catherine would rise to power in a palace coup against her own husband and become known as Catherine the Great. Even more eventually, as in now, Tony McNamara would expand his original play by creating and co-writing a new 10-part Hulu miniseries, also called "The Great."

All 10 episodes of Hulu's "The Great" premiere today, starring Elle Fanning as the Russian empress. And this new miniseries is indeed great fun. It is also, however, more funny than it is factual, more hysterical than historical. The title sequence of each episode acknowledges this honestly and openly with the same flippant sassiness that flavors the entire series after displaying its title, "The Great" attaches an asterisk with the playful disclaimer, an occasionally true story.

That story begins as a young woman is transported from her quaint German village to the Russian palace, rechristened Catherine and thrown all at once into her new surroundings and circumstances. Her husband-to-be, Peter, is played by Nicholas Hoult from "The Favourite." But his Peter is not the physically repulsive ruler from history but instead is a handsome, imperious, pompous brat indulging his whims and appetites like a rock star on tour and following each of his own jokes or outbursts of cruelty with a self-satisfied huzzah. He's not particularly pleasant to Catherine at first, not even on their wedding night. And neither are the other ladies at court.

Her only friend, initially, seems to be her maid, Marial, who is inquisitive, outspoken and honest, even when asking Catherine about her first intimate encounter with her husband the night before. Elle Fanning at this point plays Catherine as endearingly naive, but the young empress will learn and grow very quickly. Meanwhile, her maid Marial, played by Phoebe Fox, is already wise and very brazen and opinionated.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT")

PHOEBE FOX: (As Marial) Are you all right, Empress?

ELLE FANNING: (As Catherine) Quite fabulous.

FOX: (As Marial) Last night was all right, as you'd imagined?

FANNING: (As Catherine) To be honest, it was brief...

FOX: (As Marial) Brief is often a relief.

FANNING: (As Catherine) ...And not as much as I had imagined.

FOX: (As Marial) I'm sorry 'cause I had thought of warning you.

FANNING: (As Catherine) It is possible I had an overly romantic view of its unfolding. I do that.

FOX: (As Marial) Well, you would not be the first.

FANNING: (As Catherine) The truth is we do not know each other. Our love is an ember, a mere spark. And I must blow on it with the full force of my lungs so that it bursts into passionate flames.

FOX: (As Marial) Right.

BIANCULLI: There are many key actors and characters in "The Great," players inside and outside the palace whose fortunes rise and fall according to the whims of royalty and the winds of history. Not all characters survive through these 10 episodes. But they all make a strong impression. Particularly good are Sacha Dhawan as Orlov, one of Catherine's closest confidants, and Sebastien De Souza as Leo, who is presented to her by her philandering husband as a sexual diversion of her own. He quickly earns his keep.

There's a lot to take in and enjoy while watching "The Great." Visually, the architecture and landscapes and interior sets are sumptuous, almost as rich and ripe as the often scandalous dialogue. Sexual chemistry and tension run through the entire miniseries - in the ballroom dances, as well as the intimate conversations and confrontations. "The Great" is very much in the style of the 1934 movie "The Scarlet Empress," in which Marlena Dietrich starred as Catherine. It's got a similar sense of humor and irreverence and a captivating leading lady. Dietrich's Empress rose to power using sex as a weapon, while Fanning's Empress uses her mind above all.

In "The Great," both Fanning and Hoult serve up shrewdly entertaining performances. I'd call it a perfect diversion for these times, except certain coincidental parallels do surface from time to time. Catherine embraces art, the Free Press and science, while her husband is initially resistant to all of them. And before "The Great" is over, the palace itself is invaded by a smallpox epidemic, which has the characters debating about quarantines, treatments and acceptable death tolls. Aside from those eerie parallels, though, "The Great" is immensely enjoyable and clearly lends itself to a second season. For now, though, I give "The Great" a hearty huzzah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY COMPUTER")

JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) Dirty computer, walk in line. If you look closer, you'll recognize I'm not that special. I'm broke inside. Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me. Dirty computer, breaking down.

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, our guest will be singer and actor Janelle Monae. She's now starring in the second season of the Amazon series "Homecoming." She's also had supporting roles in the films "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures." Earlier this year, her electrifying singing performance opened the 2020 Academy Awards. Her 2018 album, "Dirty Computer," was named one of the top albums of the year. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY COMPUTER")

MONAE: (Singing) Dirty computer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.