May 15, 2006 12:00 PM

PBS (May 8, 10 p.m. ET)

DOCUMENTARY

More like Catherine the Pretty Good. This two-hour biography of the Russian empress (1729-96) seems tiny compared with HBO’s sumptuous portrait of Elizabeth I, starring Helen Mirren. But the history is rich and frequently perverse. It’s hard to resist a show in which a historian describes Catherine’s predecessor, the Empress Elizabeth, as “beautiful, Amazonian—a genuine nymphomaniac,” then adds that she also possessed the largest dress collection in Europe and once ordered a woman’s tongue ripped out. Catherine ruled with a spirit of more enlightened principle, consulting French philosophers like Denis Diderot, but she didn’t mind acquiescing to the murder of her husband, royal twit Peter III, to get the throne. Then again, she once found him carrying out a military-style hanging of a rat. History does not grant the man many pity points.

Between interviews with experts on the period, Emily Bruni plays Catherine with unaffected directness, reciting from the empress’s letters and memoirs. Her writings have an elegant precision at odds with the decadent mess of the Russian court.

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