TV Shows Pop Culture

How “The Great” made history so relatable in the 21st century

Though I love rewatching my favorite TV shows, it’s a thrill to be able to find a new show that I actually enjoy. This time, my newest obsession came in the form of the historical comedy The Great

The Great is a Hulu original about Catherine the Great and her rise to power. Starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, the show takes a highly satirical take on high society in period Russia. The show highlights the incompetence of Peter III and the events that push Catherine to throw a coup to overthrow her husband. 

The Great is exceptional in my eyes for a number of reasons. It’s funny, entertaining, and features a talented cast of actors. But most interesting, the show is decidedly un-historic. 

Aside from films like The Favorite, which was co-written by showrunner Tony McNamara, the historical genre has been rather impervious to change. 

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of historical dramas. Typically they tend to reflect that society in every way including language and mannerisms.Not that there’s anything wrong with sticking to history, but it certainly makes it harder to relate to the narrative. 

The Great, however, is made to be incredibly relatable and applicable in today’s society. It’s not like the show is a modern take on Catherine the Great. Rather it incorporates the perfect level of modernity into a historical narrative. The clothes, government structure, and events of the era are mostly factually accurate. But the language and characterization of the show sets it apart from others in the same genre. 

For one, the language of the show, though it does have elements of the past, is extremely palatable to today’s viewers. I’m not saying that the characters speak like we do today, but it is certainly more modern than many other historical shows and films. The dialogue doesn’t shy away from vulgarity and witty banter that not only makes the language entertaining, but comprehensible. 

But most importantly, it’s the powerful characterization that made me fall in love with this show. Of course, Catherine the Great was an incredibly historical strong figure, but with the more modern and satirical characterization of her, her strength is even more understandable. If we are to compare Fanning’s portrayal with Helen Mirren in the 2019 HBO show Catherine the Great, Fanning is more energetic, exaggerated, and reflective of women today. 

A woman in period attire says "I will not be at your or anyone's whim". Via Giphy.
[Image Description: A blond woman in period attire says “I will not be at your or anyone’s whim”. Via Giphy.]
Catherine is initially depicted as an innocent young woman, excited to marry Peter, but she quickly abandons that persona. She soon becomes a bold and manipulative figure. Her portrayal of a woman stuck in an oppressive system, flailing to enact change, resonates powerfully with women today. 

Another element that I’ve always hated about period dramas is that they avoid casting diverse actors in the name of preserving history. But The Great takes a twist on that. The show features several people of color which is not exactly a scene you’d see during that time. The diversity in the show is actually incredible, but it wouldn’t be possible if the showrunners decided to follow history to a tee. 

It’s long been said that we must learn from history if we don’t want to repeat the past. But when we find history foreign and unfamiliar, it’s hard for us to understand how it truly affects us today. The Great’s subversive nature, however, makes it one of the most relatable shows that I’ve seen in a long time. And as a Brown girl living in the 21st century, I really never expected to relate to an empress of Russia from the 1700’s.

If we want to learn our lessons from history, we need to make them applicable in today’s society. The Great shows us exactly how to do that. 

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By Apoorva Verghese

Apoorva Verghese is a Paul Tulane Scholar at Tulane University, studying psychology and linguistics. She serves as the Digital Director of the Tulane Hullabaloo and her work is forthcoming in the Brown Girl Magazine print anthology. In her free time, she can be found experimenting with her Nespresso machine with varying degrees of success.