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Kate Winslet’s golden streak of HBO miniseries fizzles with the satirical ‘The Regime’

By Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — After her Emmy-winning roles in “Mildred Pierce” and “Mare of Easttown,” HBO would probably say “yes” to a series in which Kate Winslet reads the phone book. Alas, they’ve come a little too close to that with “The Regime,” a political satire that’s weird but not very good, other than savoring Winslet’s over-the-top antics as an autocratic leader.

Political satire can be hard work, and this creation from writer Will Tracy (whose credits include “The Menu” and “Succession”), working with directors Stephen Frears and Jessica Hobbs (whose regal credentials include “The Queen” and “The Crown,” respectively), too often goes for the broad and below the belt, which makes it feel less savvy than it clearly aspires to be.

Paranoid and mercurial, Winslet’s Chancellor Elena Vernham heads a fictional country in Central Europe, whose possession of cobalt mines forces representatives of bigger nations – including a US senator (Martha Plimpton) – to take an interest in its stability and future.

When the story begins, Vernham is already engaging in odd behavior that leaves her ministers (who assemble in “Dr. Strangelove”-esque meeting rooms) exchanging pained expressions, before she recruits a disgraced soldier, Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts, seen in “Amsterdam” and “Red Sparrow”), as her confidant and near-constant companion. Confused at first, Herbert gradually occupies an increasingly significant role in affairs of state, which only makes Vernham’s stewardship, and her grip on her exalted position, more tenuous.

Like everything else in this six-episode series, the Elena-Herbert relationship is decidedly strange, confounding her aide (Andrea Riseborough) and husband (Guillaume Gallienne). As for the ministers, eager to protect their phony-baloney jobs, they privately express hope she’ll simply become bored with this latest plaything, implying that Herbert isn’t the first stray the chancellor has brought into her orbit.

While there’s a seemingly fertile idea in watching how an autocracy crumbles from within and without, as unchecked power breeds a kind of insanity, the more cerebral aspects largely get lost in the show’s eccentricities, overwhelming any sense of nuance.

Isolated from her people in a garish palace, there’s some logic in Elena seeking out someone like Herbert as an anchor, but his quirks merely add to the lunacy, clouding who’s really manipulating whom. Even what amounts to an extended cameo by Hugh Grant as an imprisoned rival can’t do much to class up the joint.

Lustily sneering her dialogue in an exaggerated accent, Winslet throws her all into the character, but to what end? Forced to exit the palace, the delusional leader finds herself needing help at one point, saying naively, “No one could refuse my face.”

HBO, understandably, would have found it difficult saying “no” to a limited series with the deservedly decorated star at its center. But after watching “The Regime,” consider this an offer they probably should have refused.

“The Regime” premieres March 3 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.

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