Has there ever been a more opportune moment for a historical drama that scrutinises Russia’s imperial history and its uneasy relationship with European identity? It’s clearly the perfect time for just such a series. And, just as obviously, the giggly comedy The Great (Channel 4, Wednesday, 10pm) isn’t up to that task.
American critics collapsed into a laudatory swoon when season two of Tony McNamara’s “anti-historical” romp debuted in the United States, last year. But real-world events have since cast Russian imperialism in a sharper light. And in that context this self-satisfyingly buffoonish chronicling of the rise of Catherine the Great makes for frustrating watching.
The Great’s big joke is that it refuses to take itself — or Russian history — seriously. Catherine (Elle Fanning) remains a character out of a high-school dramedy or a Darren Star romcom transplanted to 18th-century Russia: a sort of Emily in St Petersburg. Nicholas Hoult is back too as Peter III, whom he plays as a braying man-child. (There are clanging echoes of Tom Hulce in Amadeus.)
The real Peter was a vainglorious nincompoop usurped by his Teutonic bride Catherine. She would go on to lead the Russian conquest of, among other places, Crimea. A fact that obviously has no contemporary resonances whatsoever.
The Great insists that these tumultuous events were a grand jape. And that they weren’t all that Russian anyway. Obeying the First Law of Costume Drama, Fanning speaks in her best Downton Abbey fake British accent while Hoult seems to be playing second lead in an ITV Jane Austen adaptation.
As the story resumes, Catherine is pushing forward with the sticky process of dethroning her husband and has seized much of St Petersburg. Peter is, however, still bedded down in the palace. His adversarial relationship with his bride is complicated by the fact she is heavily pregnant with their child.
These are weighty events. The Great, though, insists that they are a top-rank chuckle-fodder. Alas, the humour is slapstick rather than satirical. It quickly becomes clear that McNamara is uninterested in skewering Russia’s idea of itself as a great power. Or in interrogating how it came to see itself and the world in those terms. (Hint: it had a lot to do with Catherine.)
It makes for infuriating viewing. At a time when Russia’s rulers have undermined the global order and inflicted misery on millions of Ukrainians, perhaps it’s time we stopped giggling in our sleeves and took seriously the story of how it went from backwater to continent-straddling imperium. But that would ring a death knell for The Great, which remains incapable of acknowledging that zingers about megalomaniac Russian despots intent on expanding their territory are not always funny.