One of the best TV surprises of 2020 was seeing Elle Fanning take the throne as Catherine the Great in Hulu’s The Great, which premiered back in May and has since been renewed for a second season. In the series developed by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, we learn a thing or two about the tumultuous relationship between Catherine and her husband, Peter III of Russia. But do we really?
If you’ve binged The Great, you know it’s kind of insane. At one point, Catherine joins a dinner where she’s expected to eat from a severed head for her dessert, and that’s just episode two… It’s certainly enough to have one go down a history black hole. In this new featurette available on the special features, the cast of The Great get into the question at hand. Here's what Tony McNamara had to say about it in the exclusive bonus features clip:
The historical detail didn't interest me as much as the idea of this young woman coming to a country she didn't know and taking power. Sometimes the facts fit that, but it's not a show that is a history lesson... I mean we found a lot of amazing historical facts we used that everyone will think we made up. So there's a lot of bits in it that people will go 'they totally made that up, and we'll say it's actually what they did think what contraception was or they did think pregnancy tests were this.'
There you have it. The Great is not exactly by the book, but it’s definitely inspired by it. As Elle Fanning (who is also an executive producer on the show) explains, the Hulu hit is more so a “period satire” that uses the material from history as a jumping off point from some seriously messed up happenings and hilarious moments between the characters.
Tony McNamara, who previously adapted Queen Anne’s story into The Favourite (which earned Olivia Colman an Oscar and also starred Nicholas Hoult), was inspired by the story of Catherine the Great. But he didn’t necessarily want to be restrained by historical accuracy. Some of the actors actually came to the set with history books in hand to show their commitment to their roles, and McNamara pretty much told them to leave them at the door.
The approach to The Great does give one an admiration and interest in history in ways that other period pieces do bore us. Yet because we’re so curious about the differences between the fictional and factual bits, the Hulu show may actually be inspiring viewers to crack open some text on the time period. And with room for creativity, The Great truly rose above other series of its kind to become one of the “top performing original comedies” of the year, per Hulu.
Some of the through lines are certainly there: both Peter and Catherine did have other lovers outside their marriage and reportedly was not a happy one. According to Tony McNamara, the audience might be surprised to learn which parts of The Great are actually derived from fact, too.
You can own The Great: Season One DVD now. Along with the 10 episodes of the series, there are special features that offer more insight into the making of the show and a gag reel with the cast. Season 2 is confirmed to be in the works, and will be 10 episodes. CinemaBlend will provide updates on the show as they come. In the meantime, check out what’s coming to Hulu this November.