Why ‘The Great’ Is So Great? Because It Feels Australian
Aussie humour is taking over the world, and helps explain why 'The Great' is one of the best shows on TV.
Australian humour is difficult to define, but it is having a moment.
From the international success of Heartbreak High, our accented “naur” being adopted as internet slang, and TikTokers going viral for simply appreciating our partying ways – Aussie humour is taking over the world. It also helps explain why The Great is one of the best shows on TV.
For three seasons, the period comedy has satirically charted the ambitious rise of Catherine the Great of Russia as she tries to take and keep her husband’s throne. Led by Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as Catherine and Peter, the self-professed “occasionally true” tale is brimming with cunning political intrigue, opulent debauchery, and diabolical dialogue.
Despite its cast being majority British, The Great has always felt distinctly Australian to me. Created by Australian playwright Tony McNamara, McNamara injects the show with a heavy dose of larrikinism in the comedy, which leans on the disregard for manners and social formalities. Where British humour may openly mock social expectations, Australian humour tends to reject them entirely. It’s a comedic tendency rooted in the historical rejection of British authority that harks back to colonisation and convict culture.
From that rejection of manners and authority stems many other distinctive features of Australian comedy: irony, directness, and a dry familiarity that has both baffled and charmed the world for years. It’s a unique Australian vibe that feels baked into the Russian period comedy.
One of my favourite sequences in the series that exemplifies all of this is in the first season. Catherine is trying to get Peter’s army general Velementov on side for her coup. So, she goes to his quarters to try and convince him, but a drunk Velementov tries to sexually assault her. Catherine fends him off, knocks him out, and returns to her rooms frustrated. There she asks Miriam, her best friend and cousin of the mad Church Patriarch Archie, how Miriam’s evening was. Miriam replies with a shrug, “avoided rap”, to which Catherine casually agrees, “same.”
The Great is never short of these darkly hilarious moments. Dialogue that dazzles in layers of political commentary and complex characterisation all brought together by an abandonment of formality that makes the horrendous hilarious. It is an approach that applies to both the action and how that action is described.
The new season features a very funny and disconcerting scene in which Peter is methodically tasting the breast milk of each of his son’s wet nurses. Having sucked directly at the teat of each, he declares to have discovered the one responsible for his son’s colic and sends her away, but not before requesting the wetnurse whose milk was “spicy” to report to the kitchen so he can have her milk made into a panna cotta. The entire sequence is presented as matter of fact. Even when Catherine walks in on this bizarre scene, once his explanation for the colic is offered, she shrugs and gets on with ruling Russia as the darkness of peasant rebellion swirls around both.
What makes The Great so, well, great is this distinctly Australian sense of humour in its DNA. Even the first season’s premise, which sees Catherine relocate from Germany to Russia, focuses on the trials and tribulations of Catherine moving somewhere farther away and infinitely more inhospitable than she expected, but taking it in her stride. Her husband Peter’s laid-back brutality, which also feels distinctly Australian in its casualness, is among the challenges Catherine must rise to. So much of what compels The Great dramaturgically and comedically lies in watching Catherine’s growing resilience, determination, and eventually comfort in making lemonade from blood-soaked lemons.
Such resilience has often been noted as a key part of Australian humour across various ethnicities. Historically, regardless of who you are, Australians must develop a sense of humour to put up with the unique challenges of living here. Even exhausted World Pride tourist and TikToker Chris Zou expressed in his hilarious TikToks total awe in the ability of Australians to “laugh off” insane hangovers. As in The Great and in life, surviving its absurd, harsh complications resides in accepting the comedy of it all.
As another example, Netflix’s Sex Education was critically acclaimed for its brutal honesty, non-judgemental, raunchy hilarity, and rebelliousness – a winning combination achieved by Australian-British creator Laurie Nunn, who based many key storylines in the show on her own experiences going to high school and university in Victoria.
Like Sex Education, The Great is praised for the heightened quality achieved by its story and characters’ sincerity, directness, and refusal to appeal to institutional authority or accepted social rules. Speaking to the National Film and Sound Archive in 2020, McNamara cites Australian filmmakers like P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, The Dressmaker), Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballrom, Moulin Rouge), and Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, True History of the Kelly Gang) as inspirations.
“They came out with that crop of really dark, funny films and that was really like, ‘Oh, we can tell those stories and we can [convey] that sense of humour’,” he said.
There is so much to love about The Great, from its ruthless royal plotting to its impeccable costuming, and its outrageous candour – but, for me, it is also because it is the most quintessentially Australian series about Russian history I’ve ever had the joy to watch.
The Great seasons 1, 2, and 3 are all streaming on Stan.