‘The Regime’ clicks as comedy but flails as satire

We know Kate Winslet can play sad women. The queen of the HBO miniseries such as “Mildred Pierce” and “Mare of Easttown” has repeatedly delivered indelible, textured, riveting performances that reward repeated viewings. It’s a sign of her skill that the characters she brings to life endure even when the dramas in question turn out to suffer from plot holes or other problems.

But if you’ve seen her in the Ricky Gervais show “Extras,” you know Winslet also happens to be hilarious, and you may have wondered, as I have, when she’d finally let her funny side loose.

Enter “The Regime,” HBO’s six-episode miniseries about the messy dictator of a collapsing central European nation rich in cobalt and sugar beets, and an overdue showcase for Winslet’s comedy chops.

The series follows Winslet as Chancellor Elena Vernham, a charismatic demagogue too busy battling a mostly invented illness to tend to her (fictional) nation’s economic woes. Largely confined to the palace, she’s tended by her submissive husband, Nicky (Guillaume Gallienne), and a crew of backbiting advisers who fearfully indulge her whims. Her most recent delusion — a mold infestation Elena insists is destroying her health — spurs her to summon a disgraced military officer, Corporal Herbert Zuback (Matthias Schoenaerts) to the palace to serve as her new moisture-measurer. Occupants of this thankless position must use a hygrometer to gauge the humidity of every room she enters. Zuback, whose bloody work massacring some miners recently earned him the title “Butcher,” clearly suspects he’s about to be punished. He looks large, basic and baffled as palace manager Agnes (Andrea Riseborough) ushers him through a number of grand staircases brimming with mold-eliminating workmen and explains his new duties for the chancellor and the stakes of getting it wrong.

Winslet’s grasp of the character is immediate, idiosyncratic and complete. The way she walks, the way she speaks (out of one corner of her mouth, so as to minimize contamination from other people’s air), the way she sings (off-key, proudly). The chancellor’s first encounter with Zuback doubles as the show’s best and most convincing argument for how Elena could possibly have come to power. She asks him what he knows, informs him he deserves love, orders him to meet in their dreams and — in their next meeting — interrogates him as to what they did there. Nonsensical, erratic and compelling, Elena winds up totally captivating Zuback. And his devotion to her health (via some rather primitive home remedies) eventually makes him her confidant. He edges out her husband, undermines her classist but otherwise nondescript advisers (including Pippa Haywood, who deserved meatier stuff) and prevails on Elena to pivot toward populist policies.

End of carousel

Matters develop and devolve amusingly enough, with Winslet and Schoenaerts’ chemistry escalating into codependent insanity until the show gets — for this viewer, at least — a little too dark and consequential to sustain the comedy at which it genuinely excels.

“The Regime” boasts an impressive pedigree. Creator and showrunner Will Tracy, a former editor in chief of “The Onion,” made “The Menu” and worked on “Succession.” Directors Jessica Hobbs (who directed episodes of “The Crown”) and Stephen Frears (who directed the 2006 film “The Queen” and the 2017 historical drama “Victoria and Abdul”) have both demonstrated a long-standing interest in female rulers.

“The Regime” feels like a collective (and ribald) overcorrection to much of this former work. Take Winslet: Having portrayed all those smart, beleaguered, traumatized women — many of them American, with highly idiosyncratic dialects and accents she worked to get just right — she gets to cut loose here as a volatile, amoral, unchecked and unhinged demagogue with a made-up accent and a slight lisp.

As for Tracy, besides working on “Succession,” which borrowed heavily from real-life circumstances (being based on the Murdochs), he worked on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” — a research-intensive show obsessed with real-world details. One senses, in “The Regime,” a creative mind rebelling against the limitations any specific referent (or reality principle) might impose. Tracy, who makes a hobby of researching dictators, deliberately expunged anything in the series that could be construed as a parallel to real-world events. Also discernible is a desire to turn the volume up on the absurd aspects of kleptocracy — to make a project that’s all “Boar on the Floor” — the infamous, over-the-top “Succession” scene in which the patriarch makes his minions crawl and eat off the floor to prove their loyalty.

As for Hobbs and especially Frears: Having spent countless hours on stories about demure and dolefully respectable English queens operating within tight and sometimes punitive constraints, perhaps there’s some pleasure in getting to direct a libidinal female ruler who governs recklessly, from the id.

Understandable impulses, all, but they’re also reactive rather than generative — and likely to produce something that might have been more gratifying to make than it is to watch.

That said, the absurdity and excess of dictatorship is a rich subject! So is the slow devolution of an autocrat (usually male) as he grows soft and needy and petulant within his bubble. There’s the paranoia to consider. The strange, embarrassing iconography (Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un sitting on horses). The codependency with — and resentment of — various yes-men. It’s genuinely interesting to wonder what a female version of this might look like. “The Regime” suggests she might be pettily obsessed with how often her name appears in American headlines. That she might order the preservation of her father’s corpse and conduct hostile interviews with him at regular intervals (and tantrum if he showed signs of decay). That she might steal her consigliere’s child, imprison her predecessor (Hugh Grant!), get infatuated with a Rasputin knockoff and use the language of maternal seduction in her television addresses. She might wear skintight dresses with military lapels, sing off-key and — if conditions are right — eat dirt.

These are bizarre and tantalizing details. But they don’t add up to anything resembling a political story, which makes any emergent critique so broad it collapses into tautology. (Self-serving leaders are self-serving. Autocrats? Tyrannical!) Aside from Elena’s dealings with the Chinese and the Americans, there is no real account of how she governs — specifically, of her (surely nightmarish and at least semi-competent) enforcement systems outside the palace. Nor is there any clear sense of the opposing factions. Or of the people.

As ideological commentary, in other words, the series ends up more hobbled than potentiated by its fictional aspects. That doesn’t seem to be what Tracy wanted. “It’s an imaginary country, but it hopefully feels as though it’s taking place within a geopolitical reality that we would recognize, and that it says something about how foreign policy works and how these regimes thrive and operate,” he recently told The Hollywood Reporter. He has also described “The Regime” as a satire, a fairy tale and a love story. Those are not, in this show at least, compatible modes.

That firm commitment to non-specificity, combined with the absurdist excess that makes “The Regime” funny, produces a series so careful not to say anything in particular that it feels more like a cathartic exercise than a stand-alone story. Or like somebody telling you their dream. One can agree — Yup, that person you made up who did crazy things you also made up sure sounds like a handful! And indeed, as comedy, “The Regime” has a lot to offer. But satire is a fundamentally parasitic medium. It more or less requires a target. By insisting on its independence from any real-world government, “The Regime” (like Elena Vernham) risks getting so invested in making a spectacle it ends up standing for nothing.

The Regime (six episodes) premieres March 3 on HBO.

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