Thursday, August 13, 2020

Great: The Great

[stream on Hulu

I watch a lot of TV in general, but the end of almost all outside the home entertainment and, until recently, televised sports, has meant that I have watched even more. One of my favorite shows from the last few months was The Great, on Hulu, which describes itself as “a satirical, comedic drama - based on the occasional historical fact - about the rise of Catherine the Great from outsider to the longest reigning female ruler in Russia's history.” It is completely over the top, barely historically accurate, bawdy, violent, silly, and exciting. Basically, it was a lot of fun, with some great performances (and some of the most amusing color blind casting that I’ve seen). And yes, they address the whole “sex with a horse” thing. (“Fake news,” apparently.) It has been nominated only for best directing and best writing in a comedy series Emmys, which is not nearly enough. 

There are ten episodes in the series, and at the end of each episode, the credits roll over a modern song, and the choices by music supervisor, Maggie Phillips, who had a similar role with The Handmaid’s Tale, are generally inspired. Warning, spoilers follow

Episode one, where we first learn of Catherine’s goal to wrest control of the country from her feckless husband, ended with Patti Smith’s strangely faithful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” In episode 2, she begins to gather allies, and the credits play over Primal Scream’s “Movin’ On Up.” Cat Power, who titled an album The Greatest, contributed “Free,” for episode 3, although that song is from a different album. In episode 4, Catherine and her officially appointed lover enjoy each other’s’ company, so what better song could play during the credits than Buzzcocks’ great pop/punk song “Orgasm Addict?” And in episode 5, Czar Peter has been poisoned, but Catherine realizes that she’s not ready to take over, so Courtney Barnett’s rocking "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go To The Party,” with the lyric "you say you'll sleep when you're dead, I'm scared I'll die in my sleep" highlights Catherine’s ambivalence. 

The second half of the season begins with episode 6, where Catherine attempts to interest Peter in science, to less than positive results. Under the credits, we hear Thomas Dolby’s signature song, “She Blinded Me With Science.” As Catherine seems defeated in episode 7, Phillips chose Sharon van Etten’s lugubrious cover of “(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, And Understanding,” featuring Josh Homme (and if you want more, and I think better, covers, check out this post). But as the treasonous planning picks up in episode 8, the credits play over female hard rock pioneer Suzi Quatro’s “The Wild One.” And as Catherine’s plot seems likely to succeed, the credit music is Cass Elliot’s appropriately hopeful “New World Coming.” 

The final episode ends with a cliffhanger, after a pregnant Catherine sacrifices her lover to save her coup. But is he dead, and does she succeed? (We do know the real answer to the second question.) And in a twist, the season ends with a haunting new cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” by Simone Istwa. It is the only one of the credit songs that appears on the show’s soundtrack album, which otherwise features selections of the show’s original music composed by Nathan Barr. Including a song called “Tainting the Borscht.” 

I could have linked to the videos of all of the songs, but instead, just go here, and you can read more about the music, and play all of the songs. And you can look forward to season 2.