Film Reviews, TV Reviews

The Great…est of Period Drama Comedy

Lately, binge watching The Great has been giving me life. It’s a bit of a roller coaster as it tells the heavily fictionalized story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power by staging a coup only a few months into her husband’s reign (that part is true!). All of the things I love about a period drama are here: witty dialogue, petty schemes, and incredible costumes and scenery. Don’t get me wrong, though–the humor is pitch black and cynical AF, and there are some pretty disturbing murders, tortures, and the like.

Having consumed the series in its entirety (unless season 2 is in the cards?!), I’m having a bit of a meltdown about what to do with my life next. The time may be ripe to reexamine the rather niche comedy/period drama genre. Here are some suggestions in case you also promised to pace yourself on your latest TV series only to be confronted with your own deceit less than a week later.

Header image from Twitter account @TheGreatHulu

Film

Two woman stand side by side in glamorous dresses, looking directly at the camera.
Image copyright by BBC

Cold Comfort Farm

Based on a parody of the romantic pastoral novel, there is nothing subtle about this film adaptation, which features a stellar cast. In one of her first roles, Kate Beckinsale plays Flora Poste, a penniless young woman who goes to live with little known relatives in the English countryside. Absolutely every character is an over-the-top exaggeration, from Ian McKellen’s fire-and-brimstone preacher to Joanna Lumley’s glamorous socialite and Sheila Burrell’s embittered family matriarch who infamously “saw something nasty in the woodshed” long ago.

An Ideal Husband

Rupert Everett as the extremely Wilde-like Lord Goring is perfect casting. Actually, you can’t fault any of the cast here, which includes Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, and Julianne Moore. When a former lover arrives in town with a blackmail scheme that could ruin Lord Chiltern’s political career, it’s up to bff Goring to cleverly solve the problem, all while dodging marriages left and right. On reflection, this is a bit like a Jeeves and Wooster adventure, except Goring fills in for both characters, throwing in some cheerfully subversive wit for good measure.

Two women stand in a courtyard wearing Regency coats and hats.
Image by Ross McDonnell

Love and Friendship

Playing almost the polar opposite of her Cold Comfort Farm character, Kate Beckinsale brings the period drama charm again as the scheming social climber Lady Susan. A fairly young widow, Lady Susan seeks a wealthy husband for herself, as well as one for her daughter, and is perfectly fine with scandalizing all of polite society with her meddling. The thinly veiled insults and outraged indignation are incredibly entertaining. As an aside, I cannot wait to watch the new adaptation of Emma (actually, as a cheapskate, I can..but I’m not happy about it)!

Return of the Hero

A French language film for the list! Not going to lie, I tuned in mostly for Mélanie Laurent, but you can’t fault Jean Dujardin here either. Though Captain Neuville promises he will write to his fiancée every day when he goes off to war, it’s pretty clear to her sister Elisabeth that this is not going to happen. Recognizing what a tool the captain is, Elisabeth writes letters to her sister on his behalf, inventing all manner of heroic deeds he’s pulled off. This plan backfires terribly when, against all odds, Capt. Neuville survives the war and returns home, fully embraced by the family. Only Elisabeth knows what a fraud the captain is, but telling the truth will expose her own deception in this silly comedy.

A woman clasps a necklace behind a man's neck while he is shirtless and wearing heavy face makeup.
Image copyright 2004 by Lions Gate Films

Stage Beauty

Difficult as it is to imagine, our film takes place at a time when it was widely accepted that only men should appear on stage, even in female roles, and the idea of a woman acting was scandalous. As the most renowned actor playing female roles in Restoration-era England, Ned Kynaston’s star is falling just as Margaret Hughes rises. This is a bit of a period drama twist on A Star Is Born, except it’s quite funny and not a huge bummer (though I did quite like the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper/Sam Elliott’s moustache version).

Twelfth Night

Ah, the fluidity of gender roles: a classic Shakespearean theme. After a shipwreck leaves Viola stranded, her brother presumed dead, she adopts a man’s disguise to make her way in the local court. Though Imogen Stubbs stars, of course it’s Helena Bonham Carter who steals the show as Olivia, the clueless romantic in love with a disguised Viola; but, like any good period drama, the entire cast is excellent. Throw in more love triangles than you can shake a stick at, and you’ve got the heart and soul of a true Shakespearean comedy onscreen.

Television

American Princess

This one is cheating as it’s not a period drama; rather, it’s set rather uniquely at a modern-day Renaissance Faire. However, the parallels between time periods, the gorgeous costumes, and the interesting look at the hierarchy of the Ren Fair circuit should scratch the period drama itch for you–just be prepared for a lot of very Shakespearean humor (read: filthy). Word of caution: this was cancelled after only one season (so don’t get too attached), but things are wrapped up in a way that’s satisfying enough that it won’t leave you hanging.

A man wearing a crown smiles at the woman seated next to him, who is holding a bearded dragon.
The only relationship that matters to me in the series is the one between King Richard and lizard/dragon in disguise Tad Cooper; image copyright by ABC Studios.

Galavant

I’m honestly never going to get over the years of my life wasted caring about Once Upon a Time, aka the Disney Channel happy hour. But the couple of Galavant seasons we got during the show’s mid-season break almost make it all worth it. At once a sort of tribute to Monty Python and a parody of all things Disney, the comedy musical is ridiculously fun to watch (and the number of incredible cameos is unreal). With songs about poisoning the nobility, burning down villages with the help of a pet lizard (who’s secretly a dragon, of course), and how stupid feelings are, this seems like a distant cousin of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Jeeves and Wooster

This show never fails to make me laugh. I can’t imagine anyone more suited to the titular roles than Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie; their dynamic is so perfect in this series. As the painfully clueless Bertie Wooster stumbles into tricky situations (often where he ends up inadvertently engaged to a series of high society ladies), his valet Jeeves always manages to wrap things up neatly. One of my favorite episodes involves a scheme to steal an antique cow creamer, which could yield multiple broken engagements (and the wrath of the Nazi-esque Black Shorts) should it fail.

Six women dressed in Regency costume stand in a row with a man dressed in a soldier's uniform of the era.
Image copyright by Mammoth Screen

Lost in Austen

True confession: I’m not the biggest Austen fan, but I love an adaptation that underscores the social commentary and biting wit rather than romance. The story follows Amanda Price, a Londoner who magically switches places with Lizzie Bennett of Pride & Prejudice, which is clearly going to include a romantic plot here. Yet the unexpected twists and turns, fish out of water comedy, and backhanded compliments make for an amusing watch. In no other Austen adaptation will characters speak so openly about lesbians, reenacting the famous Darcy in the lake scene, or waxing pubic hair.

Vanity Fair

To be honest, I don’t think this adaptation is really what William Thackeray had in mind, but IDGAF. It’s virtually impossible not to like and even root for the incredibly manipulative Becky Sharp; through this interpretation of the novel, Becky is a survivor responding to narrowly defined morality, class structures, and gender roles. Olivia Cooke is such a delight to watch in this role, and the odd decision to have Michael Palin as Thackeray interjecting wry commentary while on a carousel just works for me.

A middle-aged man with a stethoscope and notebook stands next to a young man with identical accessories.
Image copyright 2012 by Big Talk Productions

A Young Doctor’s Notebook

Finally, one that’s set in Russia! Pitch black humor, some truly gruesome medical procedures on camera, and a familiar face (Adam Godley, the power-hungry Patriarch in The Great), this is perhaps the closest series to matching The Great in tone. No one is especially likeable, nor half as clever as they believe, but it’s all so satisfyingly dark. Plus Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe having deeply cynical conversations with each other as the younger and older versions of the protagonist is so fun to watch.

Honorable mentions too obvious to bring up previously

Clearly, The Favourite, written by The Great writer/creator Tony McNamara. Managing to balance the absurdity of the characters with their vulnerability, this film is so entertaining even as it’s quite heartbreaking (and absolutely packed with social and political commentary).

Additionally, any number of films by Mel Brooks or the Monty Python crew, as well as the entire run of Blackadder. I feel pretty confident that Lord Flashheart would be right at home in Peter III’s court.

I’d also add Jojo Rabbit even though it’s emotionally devastating at times. However, Taika Waititi’s mad sense of humor and appreciation for dark comedy are on par with the tone of The Great.

What are you watching to stay wryly amused, darkly entertained, or otherwise occupied?

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