If ever a show were crying out to be 30 minutes rather than an hour, it’s Hulu’s “The Great.” With its prestige pedigree in “The Favourite” screenwriter Tony McNamara as well as its ornate wig-and-gown show in the palatial estates of 18th century Russia, it’s understandable why the grandeur seems to merit extended episodes. But the series’ second season only further confirms its strengths lie in silliness rather than seriousness.
Season 2 of “The Great” leans into its most obvious asset: the delectably doltish turn by Nicholas Hoult as Russian emperor Peter. Not since Hugh Grant has a leading actor so charmingly channeled man-child fop into an imminently likable character. He ran laps around his leading lady Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in the show’s first season; it appears the creative team simply did not realize just how much the magnetic force Hoult emanated would suck in all that was around him. But rather than just letting him spin his wheels for another ten episodes, the show finally turns Catherine into a worthy sparring partner. “The Great” frees Fanning from channeling the determined #GIRLBOSS energy of the first season, allowing her to be looser and more neurotic without sacrificing the feminist integrity of the character. Together, she and Hoult are positively electric tapping into the screwball energy of their characters’ romantic rediscovery.
After spending much of the first season plotting a coup against the husband she was arranged to marry, Catherine enters Season 2 akin to a dog who caught the car. Her mind once ran free with boundless ambition because her ideas to modernize Russia were merely conceptual. Following a shift in the country’s rulership, she now has the ability to put modern reforms into practice from her new perch – and finds that those around her only treat these ideals as even more nonsensical. “The Great” spots the inherent ridiculousness of monarchic rule, and Catherine’s frustrations to implement her agenda lead her to reevaluate Peter as both partner and leader.
An antagonist attitude toward her husband gives way to a begrudging admiration that slips out at surprising times. Peter, in turn, comes to covet the love of a partner he once took for granted. With their political union at an icy standstill, their personal union heats up. The emerging dynamic between the first couple of Russia comes to resemble a classic comedy of remarriage, a send-up of the absurdities of relationships by having two former lovers rekindle an old flame.
The best moments of “The Great” in its second season come from the moments when Peter and Catherine get to tentatively test the other’s interest, feeling out whether their carnal desires exist for more than producing the heir she carries in her growing belly. The misadventures and miscommunications in the games lovers play make for the stuff of great sitcom material. This is why it’s such a bummer that their relationship ups and downs are just one part of an overstuffed hour-long setup.
What this season of “The Great” gains from these new revelations about the show’s central relationship is offset by losing the thread of political intrigue. A plethora of subplots and supporting characters simply cannot match the energy or excitement generated by the two leads. The show vastly overestimates the level of interest in having each of Peter and Catherine’s respective chief confidants, Grigor (Gwilym Lee) and Marial (Phoebe Fox), catching each other’s eye as they plot behind the scenes. Scenes with Adam Godley’s wry archbishop show the uneasy marriage of church and state, sure, but mostly just serve to bog down any episode’s momentum.
The only B-plot immune from this lethargy is the brief late-season arc by Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s scheming matchmaker of a mother, Johanna. Her appearance upends the court as she takes a romantic interest in Peter, albeit for self-serving more than sensual reasons. It is she who throws into stark contrast just how much of the show’s political machinations miss the mark because they are siloed off from Catherine and Peter rather than feeding directly into it.
Season 2 of “The Great” displays a show at war with itself. McNamara clearly has ambitions for the show to rival his Oscar-nominated work on “The Favourite” in the trenchant analysis of power. Yet, with each passing episode, it’s clear that the serious stuff works best as background noise to the Catherine and Peter variety hour. The joys of watching an evenly matched Hoult and Fanning fooling around with each other outweigh the overwrought palace intrigue … for now. This balance will likely be untenable moving forward unless the show can further steer into the strengths of its dynamite leading performances. [B-]