Tony McNamara: How writing ‘The Great’ on the go saves lives

Tony McNamara stands outside amid foliage for a portrait.
“I looked for what to build the season around,” Tony McNamara writes of Season 3 of “The Great.” “And the obvious thing was how do you stay married to someone who you tried to kill, who slept with your mother, and who’s empire is it anyway? Standard problems of any young married couple.”
(Tom Jamieson / For The Times)

Pondering the third season of a TV show, you ponder threes: third time lucky, on the other hand three nails in Jesus on the cross, and eventually prep looms and you realize you have three children who need to eat so you best write your show.

I looked for what to build the season around, and the obvious thing was how do you stay married to someone who you tried to kill, who slept with your mother, and whose empire is it anyway? Standard problems of any young married couple.

So knowing I had the wonderful screen couple of Elle Fanning and Nick Hoult backed by a great ensemble, I set to work on fleshing out those ideas and building the baseline of the season. And I brainstormed how to build a strong political narrative that would entwine with the emotional line, and also how to make it really funny.


That’s what I have in my back pocket so we have a jumping off point. And then the writers room arrive to save me with the rest. It’s when I have a room of writers that the show really starts to take shape, and the early weeks are the most fun, crazy, terrifying (maybe I don’t have a show) weeks. Eclectic research, disturbing personal stories, excellent jokes and incredibly bad jokes start happening.

A man and woman in fur coats stand outside in the snow in a scene from "The Great."
Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning star in “The Great.”
(Christopher Raphael / HULU)

Plots rise up and then fall away just as quickly. You won’t see the thrilling and intricate rhubarb smuggling plot this season, but it was a good idea for a week or two. It goes on the “maybe later” whiteboard, and the whole season it floats in and out of stories and ends up firmly back on the “maybe next year” board.

I like to find a few true historical elements within our general fast-and-loose approach to history. Interesting stuff comes to light — Catherine the Great’s involvement in the American Revolutionary War and whether she played a small but pivotal role in the U.S. victory. We also discover that while she was trying to pursue a progressive agenda aimed at freeing the serfs, an internal rebellion happened that meant she had to fight her own people.

All of it resonates with the current day and provides great political and emotional grit that we can add our own comic twist to.


Tony McNamara
(Tom Jamieson / For The Times)

Over three seasons as Catherine the Great and Peter III of Russia, the actors tangled with love, treachery and the rule of a nation.

June 5, 2023

When production starts we have four scripts written, and we’ll write the other six during production. Due to my Catholic upbringing, I like to suffer. I like to watch the show and shape it as it goes, so even though it’s a more difficult and pressured route, I feel like we’ve gained a lot from the process.

And personally, there is so much joy in watching the actors take and transcend your work, bringing their love, passion and art to the floor. I’m always surprised and grateful for it. And while I watch, if I see characters spark, or an actor shows me something I haven’t seen before and I think it’s good for the show, a hastily convened, post-shoot day writers room quickly reshapes the episode.

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Aug. 24, 2023

The best example of this is a 9-year-old character who is fated for death in Episode 2, whose table read of the scenes before he is to be shot in the head is so good, and is so funny, and has veteran actors in tears laughing, that I scribble on page 42, “You should shoot yourself in the head if you shoot Maxim in the head.” I announce at the cast dinner that night that Maxim lives, to wild applause. And then note how well prepared every actor is at all table reads for the rest of the season.

Finally the shoot ends, eight months after the first empty whiteboard. Season 3 has happened. Myself and a couple of my closest writers walk away from set. We take a moment, sit outside, possibly happy and definitely exhausted, seemingly brain dead. And it takes about 10 minutes for someone to say, “I had an idea for Season 4.”


Editor’s note: This essay was submitted prior to the writers’ strike.

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