Despite current production suspensions and slowdowns that have caused some of our go-to network and cable TV programs to shorten their seasons or postpone their upcoming returns, enough already finished shows were banked earlier this year to allow for some seriously good viewing right now. The streaming services in particular have been a boon to anyone wishing to catch fresh high-quality programming or delve into the video archives for a classic or two. On the new and nifty side, we have a marvelous period satire and a tense modern-day mystery.
Huzzah! The Great — set in the 18th-century Russian royal court of Emperor Peter III and Empress Catherine — is a delicious stew of skewed history, sly comedy, and character-driven drama. Stew? Make that tasty borscht. The fact that it comes from the mind of Tony McNamara is no surprise, given that he was the Oscar-nominated co-screenwriter of The Favourite, a dark-hued historical dramedy set in a different royal court. Both projects bring wit and wisdom to an examination of palace intrigue and the manipulation of power from the perspective of women in close quarters with rulers of questionable skill and, in the case of The Great, dubious virtue.
True to its title, the 10-episode series concentrates on the struggles and rise of the plucky, brainy, rosy-cheeked beauty eventually known as Catherine the Great, played here with grace and wiles by Elle Fanning. The series begins as Catherine, a young, naïve Prussian aristocrat, arrives in Moscow for an arranged marriage to Peter III, the absolute monarch of Russia. Peter is depicted in The Great as an offhandedly cruel, callous, selfish, philandering, and less-than-competent despot beset with feelings of inadequacy in the shadow of his father, the late and purportedly beloved Peter the Great. Despite the detestable nature of his role, actor Nicholas Hoult is eminently watchable and perfectly perverse as the emperor.
Abused by Peter III and surrounded by decadent, self-serving members of his entourage who resent her, Catherine soon learns the survival skills she needs to navigate the treacherous social and political waters of the palace. And she finds a few kindred souls to join her in a plot to overthrow her arrogant, hedonistic heathen of a husband and build a nobler, more forward-thinking Russia. Foremost among Catherine’s allies would be the learned, humane, but skittish aristocrat Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) and her handmaiden Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former lady of the court whose title was stripped away by the emperor.
While it addresses some accepted facts of Catherine’s life, The Great happily takes its share of wild leaps into profane, sexy, and clever conjecture amid luxuriously realized settings. Fun and frolic aside, it has plenty to say about class systems, economic disparity, the entanglement of church and state, the frenzy of nationalism, the horrors of war, and of course, women’s rights. Fanning is front and center throughout the entire endeavor, and her regal demeanor is put to better use here as Catherine than as the dewy-eyed Princess Aurora in the hackneyed Malificent live-action movies from Disney. It’s a tribute to the vibrant, thoughtful nature of The Great that the occasional anachronistic argot and attitudes and the use of contemporary rock songs over the end credits never feel jarring or inappropriate. The fizzy effervescence and modern point of view only underscore the daring difference between this and Victoria or The Crown, two highly decorated series that are also about empowered female leaders.
The Great is available for streaming on Hulu.
If you’re a fan of the adroit American writer Harlan Coben, you may have seen Ne le dis à personne, the gripping 2006 French movie adaptation of his novel Tell No One. Now, Coben’s psychological thriller The Stranger — about the deadly consequences of life-altering secrets being revealed throughout a small community — has been turned into an addictive eight-part miniseries. Some elements of the source material have been changed, such as the locale moving from a suburban New Jersey town to one in England, but it’s presumed that the alterations have been done with the author’s approval because he is listed as a co-producer.
At the center of the story is lawyer Adam Price (Richard Armitage) who learns some upsetting information about his wife, Corinne (Dervla Kirwan), from a stranger (Hannah John-Kamen). Corinne disappears shortly thereafter. Over the course of Adam’s search for Corinne and a concurrent police investigation into an assault on a local teenager, the stranger spreads more discord in the area with the knowledge she has uncovered.
Disparate plot strands slowly come together and tighten on the various locals, including a police inspector (Siobhan Finneran) on the job, her best friend (comic actress Jennifer Saunders of the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous in a rare dramatic part), Adam’s neighbors, his sons and their friends, and even his father (Anthony Head) whose ruthless business practices create more conflict. As in the best mysteries, the twists and turns keep coming until the final moments. There’s little danger you’ll be disappointed by The Stranger.
The Stranger is available for streaming on Netflix.
Be on the alert for HBO’s recently premiered reboot of the classic legal drama Perry Mason, reimagined in the hard-boiled milieu of 1930s Los Angeles with Matthew Rhys (winner of a best actor Emmy for The Americans) on the case as private-eye-turned-defense-lawyer Mason, plus co-stars Tatiana Maslany (winner of a best actress Emmy for Orphan Black), and John Lithgow (multiple winner of best actor Emmys).
Netflix will soon present the third series of Dark, the mind-blowingly complex, era-spanning sci-fi series from Germany; the latest run of Lucifer, the droll, supernatural cop procedural featuring the most suave incarnation of the Devil ever — a club owner and moonlighting LAPD consultant embodied by the magnetic Tom Ellis; and for anyone who missed it on Pop TV, the final season of the completely delightful, reliably funny and occasionally touching sitcom Schitt’s Creek, a showcase for the brilliant comedic talents of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as the father and mother in a wealthy, ostentatious family that’s bankrupted and must relocate to a rural town where they try to get their lives back together.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and The Mark Thompson Show on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.