Film & Television

Historical Figures, Hysterical Television

I’m a fool for period drama. My husband is used to walking through our “TV room” (not much more than an alcove previous homeowners used for a washer and dryer) and being transported to 1910s Yorkshire (Downton Abbey), 1950s Madrid (Velvet), or 1920s Denmark (Seaside Hotel). So he wasn’t too surprised in recent weeks to find I’d time-traveled to 1760s Russia and 1860s Amherst.

What did surprise him was the techno funk soundtracks behind the antiquated action, the contemporary (and often foul-mouthed) exclamations coming out of accurately costumed actors, and the thoroughly modern-day dilemmas they found themselves in.  

What are you watching?” he asked.

With a self-satisfied smile, I told him. The Great and Dickinson. I’m enjoying them both, immensely, which is why I’ve decided to tell you about them here. (I hope you will appreciate them more than my husband does.)

The Great, created by Tony McNamara, is a serial dramedy “loosely-based” on the rise to power of Russia’s Catherine the Great. In 1744, the 15-year-old daughter of a poverty-stricken Prussian prince was summoned to marry Emperor Peter (the less-than-great). She soon realized that Russia was a backwards backwater of a country and her husband a fool. After trying to educate him, cajole him, and reason with him, she determined that he was beyond redemption as a ruler, staged a coup, and assumed the throne herself. In real life, Catherine (or Ekaterina) went on to become Russia’s longest-ruling female leader (1762-1796). Under her reign, Russia became a more progressive and enlightened country, and actively pursued relationships (other than war) with the rest of Europe. Of course, as would any powerful monarch, she made many enemies over the years who attempted to discredit her with smear campaigns. Historians agree: she never had sex with a horse.

In the television version, Peter’s dissolute court may disturb the young bride, but it’s great fun to watch. The nobility bows and scrapes — and lifts their skirts — for the emperor, who rules on a whim. (The entire court is oversexed.) “Huzzah!” they toast about any and everything, smashing their glasses to the ground. Peter gives Catherine a bear for a wedding gift but promptly shoots it. “Huzzah!”

Catherine introduces some civility to the proceedings. “We shall have breakfast together every day,” she cheerily informs her husband. Although smarter than Peter, when she attempts to escape, she realizes that, like the bear, or a chef who disappoints, or a noble woman demoted to a scullery maid, she is at his mercy. Meanwhile she is making friends and collecting allies: a scholar, a general. Taking the throne may be a last resort, but Catherine gets there pretty quickly. And, truly, we can’t blame her.

Season two, which premiered earlier this fall, begins with Peter on the run and, after some unfortunate bloodshed (including Catherine’s lover), the emperor surrenders, and now-pregnant Catherine is crowned Empress. Of course, the intrigue doesn’t end there, as she soon learns. Nobility from all over Russia pay their respects, make demands, and gift her ponies and stallions. “For the record,” she shouts, “I never fucked a horse!”

The Great has a marvelous cast, starting with the titular heroine herself. Elle Fanning, a screen veteran at just 23 (Phoebe in Wonderland, The Beguiled, 20th Century Women), is a Hollywood “IT girl.” Reminiscent of Kirsten Dunst in Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), Fanning seamlessly blends eighteenth century manners with a Gen Z attitude. The Great doesn’t go so far as to include digital technology, but if it did, Fanning’s Catherine would be all over social media. She is the epitome of viral.

Also excellent are Nicholas Hoult, very funny and almost endearing as Peter; Belinda Bromilow as Peter’s crazy but cunning Aunt Elizabeth; Phoebe Fox as the aforementioned lady/scullery maid, Marial; Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo, Catherine’s adviser; Adam Godley as a hypocritical archbishop; Charity Wakefield as Lady Georgina, Peter’s lover; and Gwilym Lee as Grigor, her cuckolded husband. The bear, alas, did not get a credit.

Fast-forward a hundred years and 4,500 miles, and you’ll find the cast of Dickinson, created by Alena Smith, equally wonderful. Hailee Steinfeld, like Fanning, is already an accomplished actress despite her youth. In fact, she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the remake of True Grit in 2010 when she was just 14 years old. As young Emily Dickinson, she is earnest and intelligent and, above all else, poetic. She brings a passion for living to the retiring, real-life character known as the “Belle of Amherst.” 

Steinfeld is well matched by costars Toby Huss as her upright father; Jane Krakowski, Tony winner and Emmy nominee, as her loony mother; Anna Baryshnikov, daughter of Mikhail, as frustrated sister Lavinia; and Ella Hunt as Sue, Emily’s sister-in-law and lover.

In Dickinson, the residents of Amherst, Massachusetts don’t fully appreciate Emily’s unique perspective on things. But, they do like to party. So, in addition to scenes depicting the young poet finding inspiration in nature, her family, her love for Sue, and the war raging between the states, we’re treated to a veritable Greek chorus of young people sipping tea while they spill the tea on their friends and neighbors. Emily’s day-to-day is much livelier in this retelling than in more staid biopics like 2016’s A Quiet Passion.

But, despite the nineteenth-century “club kids” she hangs out with, the center of Emily’s life is still her poetry. Dickinson does a nice job insinuating lines of poems throughout each episode. Although always making the humorous most of current sensibilities, the show is sober when it should be. For example, Emily’s observations on death, many written when so many of her generation were being killed, get the respect and gravitas they deserve.

Both The Great and Dickinson bring history to life in ways that may feel inappropriate — if not sacrilegious — to purists. But, they both take real-life stories, in their different ways stranger and far more entertaining than anything a showrunner might come up with, and adapt them to be divinely accessible to a twenty-first century streaming television audience. They have made the old new in smart, funny, and utterly entertaining ways.

As Emily herself would say, “We turn not older with years but newer every day.” 


The Great is available to stream on Hulu. Dickinson is available to stream on Apple TV. Both services have special offers available.


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