After three seasons, spanning 14 years of tumultuous Russian (sort of) history, The Great has been cancelled by Hulu. The show, in which Elle Fanning played Catherine, Empress of All Russia, with Nicholas Hoult as her feckless husband Peter, garnered consistently positive reviews and a bevy of Emmy nominations. And yet Hulu – the US broadcaster who sell the UK rights to Lionsgate+ – have decided to call it a day.
Created by Tony McNamara, the Australian screenwriter who had already lent his irreverent, anachronistic tone to Yorgos Lanthimos’s Oscar-winning The Favourite, The Great could easily have been just another stuffy period drama. Arriving on the scene in the spring of 2020, its debut season was overshadowed by the appearance, later that year, of Bridgerton. Both shows subverted the traditions of the period drama – the bonnets and bodices, the stammering and swooning, the wigs and waistcoats – by employing a distinctively modern sensibility. Unlike every Jane Austen adaptation there’s ever been, these shows were riddled with curse words, violent deaths and the occasional boob.
But comparing Bridgerton and The Great is like comparing EastEnders to Only Fools and Horses. One is an unnervingly compulsive melodrama, the other a fizzingly lively comic masterpiece. Because The Great was funny. Not in the cringing manner of seeing Mr Collins splutter his way through family dinner, or the pleasing irony of watching Marianne Dashwood preference Willoughbey’s flowers over Brandon’s, but in a ballsy, belly-deep way. “I present this spruce,” Catherine tells Peter, on their first meeting, “as a symbol of our feelings for each other.” “She gave me a twig,” Peter says, turning incredulously to his advisors. “She’s not another inbred, is she?”
Sexy (“Let us agree to our accommodations,” Catherine fumes, as Peter hesitantly goes down on her, “and finish me off!”) and irreverent (“let’s leave Voltaire to suck his own c*** and ponder that,” comes Georgina’s judgment of French enlightenment philosophy), The Great had something for most of the family. Even if the noncommittal approach to historical verisimilitude might have granddad tutting from behind a Simon Sebag Montefiore hardback.
TV doesn’t inspire the sort of fanaticism that other mediums do. Hardcore fans of The Simpsons would have nothing on the legion of BTS devotees, nor would the most ardent Breaking Bad aficionado hold a candle to a Marvel obsessive (and if you think Game of Thrones watchers are scarily pedantic, you should meet someone who’s read the books…). But from the off, The Great felt like it was handmade for a cult following, like the ethos of 2010s Tumblr had become sentient and written its way through Russian history. In a sea of sitcoms composed, seemingly, for the purpose of becoming memes, The Great was unapologetically wordy, sarcastic and bathetic.
Is the end of The Great the latest chapter in TV’s current struggles with cancel culture? Or are the careers of Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult – who have worked under auteurs like Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Winding Refn and George Miller – simply too big for the small screen? One thing is for sure: The Great never found the audience it deserved. Squirrelled away – in the UK at least – on an obscure streaming service to which none but the richest, or most obsessively completist, of streaming viewers would subscribe, the series could never be accessible to primetime audiences.
Lavish settings (it is hard to make a drama about the 18th-century Russian court without bankrupting yourself just in the locations budget), glamorous costumes, and a cast of supporting supremos (ranging from Gillian Anderson to Jason Isaacs) might have made The Great an unsustainable initiative. Not to mention the fact that Catherine the Great was Empress for 36 years, until her death at the age of 67. Fanning, meanwhile, is still only 25. As a biopic, perhaps The Great was never destined to tell the full story (which, according to legend, might have ended with her crushed under the weight of an amorous stallion.)
McNamara, along with Fanning and Hoult, have left behind an excellent trilogy of seasons, packed with whimsical history. Perhaps only now, as the sun sets on its Empire, will audiences discover The Great and give it the attention it always deserved.