Nobody traces a family tree or tests their DNA on 23andMe in the hopes of discovering that their ancestors were unremarkable. As people worry that this is a generation that may regress, that may not have the financial security of the one that came before, there’s a growing instinct to be reverse-aspirational. If we can’t be great, we at least want to have been great.
This sort of insecurity and identity grasping is one of the driving forces behind The Romanoffs, a new eight-part Amazon anthology miniseries that represents Matthew Weiner’s first TV show since Mad Men. While that Emmy-winning drama was met with near universal praise, you can expect much more wildly varied responses to The Romanoffs, which comes across as a work of simultaneously boundless artistic ambition and ego, a project capable of being amazing and infuriating.
Each of the installments is effectively a stand-alone feature film — all three sent to critics have running times of around 90 minutes, though Amazon says some later episodes are shorter — about people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian royal Romanov family (the spelling of the title was selected for “phony flavor,” per press notes). Each episode was directed by Weiner, who also wrote or co-wrote six, with the other two coming from established Mad Men veterans Semi Chellas and Andre and Maria Jacquemetton. A few Easter eggs connect some of the segments, but there’s no cohesive ongoing narrative or structure or tone or location in the globetrotting series. That makes it hard to review The Romanoffs, because each episode offers something different, each has different strengths and flaws and each requires at least some amount of tolerance — be it for quirk, whimsy or pretension; one critic’s can’t-miss gem will be another’s quit-after-10-minutes chore.
With shades of Hitchcockian suspense, Italian giallo hyperstylization and Altman-esque chaotic meta-commentary, the third episode was probably my favorite. “House of Special Purpose” features Christina Hendricks as an actress traveling to Austria to shoot a TV miniseries about the Romanovs and falling victim to jet lag, delayed grief and the caprice of the project’s prima donna director, played with magnificent arch flair by Isabelle Huppert. The episode is beautifully shot by Christopher Manley, spooky as heck and savagely satirical. Plus, if you’re looking for an opportunity to psychoanalyze Weiner’s feelings about actresses and women in the creative process — and in light of a #MeToo-related allegation, many surely will be — it’s both a dream and a nightmare, which fits with the theme of the episode.
More mixed is the second episode, “The Royal We,” a dark comedy about a couple (Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishe) in a rut. His ties to the Romanovs may be the only interesting thing about him until jury duty and flirtation with a mysterious fellow juror (Janet Montgomery) spark fantasies of romance and danger. As was often the case on Mad Men, Weiner is more comfortable utilizing humor as a punctuation to drama rather than working in straight comedic mode and some of the attempts for laughs here are flailing. Stoll is dull and nebbishy, probably in intentional ways, but Montgomery and especially a radiant Bishe are smashing in a hit-and-miss piece that calls to mind several equally uneven recent Woody Allen films about unfulfilled men whose lives take on bumbling noir shadings as they hit a midlife crisis. Is it tempting to, again, read the themes here through a Weiner prism? Sure! The Romanoffs is nothing if not a series from a TV blue blood about the difference between being royalty and having delusions of royalty, the gap between heir and fraud, entitlement and inheritance.
Inheritance is literally at stake in the first of the episodes and the one which felt most egregiously in need of somebody coming at it with scissors. There’s a wonderful 50 minutes in the 84-minute “The Violet Hour,” featuring Marthe Keller as an aging French woman with Romanov ties whose American nephew (Aaron Eckhart) has his hopes set on getting her stunning apartment (and accompanying Faberge egg). The heart of the story is in the relationship between the racist, set-in-her-ways Anushka, Parisian yet yearning for Russia, and her young Muslim caregiver (played by captivating discovery Ines Melab), yearning to just be accepted in the land of her birth. Pacing and Eckhart’s dullness (again perhaps intentional) aside, it’s a generally thoughtful showcase for its leading ladies.
Fans of Mad Men will see no shortage of familiar faces, with John Slattery, Jay R. Ferguson and Cara Buono among those slated for later appearances, while Manley, costumer Janie Bryant, production designer Christopher Brown and all three Romanoffs editors are among the behind-the-scenes talent going from the period polish on the AMC drama to something more contemporary here. That’s “contemporary” with an asterisk, because while the episodes are set in the present, the Romanov name means the past is always creeping beneath the surface, whether as legacy or curse. Weiner, a master of soundtrack, keeps the Russian flavor vital by weaving original score choices in with dynamic musical moments set to Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev.
After “The Violet Hour” and “The Royal We” premiere Oct. 12, The Romanoffs will break with Amazon’s binge model, keeping the stories separate and offering one Matthew Weiner movie per week — no great incentive for those who saw his all-over-the-place 2013 feature debut, Are You Here. Thus far, none of the Romanoffs chapters are as messy as that flawed feature, nor as beautiful and contained as any of the best Mad Men hours. Some viewers will be enthralled by Weiner’s literary conceits and by his intended scope, others quickly dismissive of the untethered quality and occasional genre missteps. As with anybody exploring their DNA, Matthew Weiner didn’t get into this to be a peasant.
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Marthe Keller, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Lane, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Amanda Peet, Jack Huston, Corey Stoll, Andrew Rannells, Mike Doyle, JJ Feild, Janet Montgomery, Paul Reiser, Noah Wyle, Kathryn Hahn, Kerry Bishe, Jay R. Ferguson, Ben Miles, Mary Kay Place, Griffin Dunne, Cara Buono, Ron Livingston, Jon Tenney, Clea DuVall, Radha Mitchell, Hugh Skinner, Juan Pablo Castaneda, Emily Rudd, Adele Anderson, Annet Mahendru, Louise Bourgoin, Hera Hilmar, Ines Melab, Michael O’Neill, David Sutcliffe
Creator-director: Matthew Weiner
New installments premiere Fridays on Amazon, starting Oct. 12.