6:45am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Matthew Weiner’s 'The Romanoffs' Tackles #MeToo in the Most Off-putting Way Possible
For better or worse, I tend to be reasonably able to compartmentalize "art" from "artist." I mostly stopped watching Woody Allen movies when they became consistently bad, rather than when he, as a person, began making me uncomfortable. I can happily argue for the value of The Birth of a Nation as a cinematic text without ever losing track that it's a repulsively valuable cinematic text. I wrote a fairly positive review of Roseanne in the spring.
However, watching "Bright and High Circle," the latest installment of Amazon's The Romanoffs, left me with the distinct concern that we've moved into a phase in which I don't know how to watch television anymore.
Not all television, mind you.
I still know that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina gets fun only after spending an inexcusably long time on exposition, that Succession is a comic masterpiece and shouldn't be submitted for awards consideration as a drama, that the broadcast networks decided to sit the fall out creatively and yet kept producing new shows anyway.
This is more about the ripples of the #MeToo movement, a long-needed corrective to an industry steeped in cronyism and patriarchy run amuck basically since its inception. Next time somebody tries complaining that, "The #MeToo Movement has gone too far, because all it takes is one accusation to end somebody's career," you have my legally unauthorized permission to flick their earlobe or something that falls short of actual assault, but still conveys the necessary intent. It's hard to turn on your TV without spotting somebody who has faced allegations and either been cleared by a convoluted process or weathered those allegations because the industry decided they were innocent, decided their alleged crimes weren't career-ending or decided their star power was too radiant to be dimmed.
Three quick things to emphasize before I continue: First, my distracted viewing of TV shows is close to irrelevant in the broader terms of #MeToo. Justice is important and my clouded vision is not. Second, I'm not a court of law and any behavior described here is "alleged" unless it has been admitted to. And third, this isn't one of those columns in which I'm going to reach a solution by the end. My only solution is "Believe women" and that's a life solution, not a way to handle the professional responsibilities of a TV critic.
The Deuce is a show I love and have had difficulties watching without some new-found trepidation this season, which isn't really fair since it's Maggie Gyllenhaal's show and its empowerment message is always delivered in complicated and nuanced ways. We have yet to get a third season of Master of None, but when its co-creator and star popped up on episodes of Ugly Delicious, it pulled me out of that very fine show. I don't watch Talking Dead, because it's a crappy, obsequious promotional platform for a crappy show, and I don't have any problems fast-forwarding during certain parts of American Idol, because it's American Idol and who cares.
This brings me back to "Bright and High Circle," which is either a 71-minute episode devoted entirely to Matthew Weiner's not especially veiled frustration at the workplace harassment allegations brought against him by former Mad Men scribe Kater Gordon; or it's an utterly vacuous segment of television that never would have been made were it not for Weiner's well-earned star power and never, under any circumstances, should have been allowed to run 71 minutes.
It's one or the other and in neither case is it actually "good." As uneven as The Romanoffs has been through five episodes, this was my least favorite and the least integrated into the central theme by far. It's easy to see why Amazon didn't send this episode to critics pre-premiere for review. The desire to fixate on this episode would have been unavoidable.
In the episode, a Russian literature professor (Katherine, played by Diane Lane, who also appears this fall in House of Cards, an odd #MeTwo-fer) is shocked when she's told that accusations have been made against the family's beloved piano teacher (Andrew Rannells' David). What kind of accusations? Nobody knows for sure other than that somebody — again, nobody knows who for sure — accused him of "inappropriate behavior." From this Kafkaesque setup blooms a flowering paranoia as Katherine and her husband (Ron Livingston's Alex) jump to conclusions that the "inappropriate behavior" must be sexual and begin interrogating their sons, each of whom denies that David did anything more than make bad jokes.
Linking the episode with the rest of the series, Katherine learns that David has been stealing her own backstory of being a direct descendant of the Romanovs — the crime of attempting to reframe his own identity while those he depends on for financial support are in the process of undermining his actual identity solely on the basis of whispers. I think you'd probably watch the episode for around an hour and get that Weiner is penning a cautionary tale about gossip and the insecurities that fuel it, all unfortunately done with very little flair or personality.
Then the story detours as it begins to appear that David's crime may be far less than feared and the show pauses to let Livingston's character grandstand, recounting a childhood story about a friend the other kids in the neighborhood accused of being a girl. When his father finds out that Alex asked the friend about their gender, he's displeased and rants at his son, "You listened to the mob instead of thinking for yourself. You know, some people are different and it's none of your goddamn business."
Over the years, Alex's feelings about the mob mentality appear to have calcified. Given the opportunity to lecture his own sons, he now expands the rant to, "When you accuse somebody of something, whether they did it or not, you make everybody look at them differently. Bearing false witness is the worst crime you can commit. Otherwise, anyone can say anything about anybody and just saying it ruins their life. No matter what they did. Does that seem fair? It's not fair!"
You'll notice, I trust, the key pieces of that broadside, namely "whether they did it or not" and "no matter what they did." It's one thing to attempt to educate a child on jumping to false conclusions and joining a mob and blah blah blah, but in Alex's version of morality, it literally doesn't matter if the accusations are completely accurate. The crime is in the pile-on, in becoming part of the herd, in spreading information, true or otherwise. Because that's the "fun" twist to the anecdote Alex recounts about his childhood friend, one that doesn't even make it into his telling in a postscript: Alex's friend Alan actually was a girl and her name was really Ellen. Somehow the decision of Alex's childhood chum to, for a moment in her life, identify as male is equated with accusations of "inappropriate behavior" against a teacher or, extra-texually, a junior writer allegedly being told by a boss that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. The crime of making a group see an accused individual differently is presented as worse than whatever crime the accused didn't or maybe did commit, or at least as bad in its own way.
Somehow Weiner even finds a way to get Aleksandr Pushkin involved in his argument, having Katherine teaching her class the Russian poet's "When Your So Young and Fairy Years," a poem about ignoring the insidiousness of "gossip's noise" and elevating the "one good friend" able to resist the "hypocritical damnation" and "poison, outrageous." Like everything else in the episode, it's clumsy and way too on-the-nose and that's coming from somebody who generally swooned when Mad Men did anything comparably overt. Here, it's not a very good or interesting story, nor is it will told.
And what of the actual truth? It's just another victim, so far as I can tell. Katherine is left at the end of the episode unable to watch David's presumably innocent behaviors without experiencing distrust that wasn't there before. She has to close the door on a piano lesson, previously a point of pleasure and pride, since she can't stop herself from watching where David puts his hand and how he shows enthusiasm and encouragement. She doesn't know how to watch a piano lesson anymore.
In this sense, I guess Weiner (and co-writer Kriss Turner Towner) have very accurately anticipated the scales that have fallen over my eyes in the past year. It's not imperceptive, but man is it ever gross. The thing Katherine loved has been ruined for her, but who ruined it? Not the detective who told her obliquely about the accusations against David long before the accusations' substance could be proved. Not David — though if we follow through the parallel stories and Alan actually being Ellen, even if David actually is a molester, the implication seems to be that nobody is allowed to call him on it anymore, having wrongly followed the mob initially. The person to blame for Katherine's newfound curdled joy is only Katherine for having had the nerve to tug at a string and jump to conclusions. She, in fact, has had to weather accusations from her sons that her misplaced credulity was based on homophobia or latent classism. Her distrust is the act the episode primarily seems to be stigmatizing.
So I guess I don't know how to watch TV anymore because of the alleged misdeeds of too many people in an industry that has too long been rotten to the core.
And that's on me, I guess?