Amazon’s anthology series The Romanoffs comes from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and fans of that series should feel pretty at home here with its themes despite a contemporary setting. Weiner created, wrote, directed, and produced the series which follows descendants (or at least, those who believe themselves to be the descendants) of Russia’s former royal family, the Romanovs — spelled either with the V and the double F. The opening credits of each new episode presents this idea in stark visual detail: the Tsar and his family gather for a family portrait, they are gunned down by the Bolsheviks, and their blood flows down across the floorboards through black and white photographs of, presumably, the descendants of those who were able to escape.
Before I go any further though, a note: like with Mad Men, The Romanoffs screeners came with a list of spoilers and individual embargo dates, so this review covers the first two installments, both of which will be released Friday, October 12th. The first is “The Violet Hour,” which focuses on a wealthy Parisian Romanoff heir (Marthe Keller) occasionally visited by her nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart), who runs a hotel with his girlfriend Sophie (Louise Bourgoin). They have their eye on her stately apartment, and as her sole surviving family member, Greg is sure it is coming to him. While aunt Anushka is also a hypochondriac, she does have some actual health problems, and thus is more or less assigned a caretaker, Hajar, (Ines Melab) who happens to be Muslim. Some culture clashes ensue, as Anushka is exceptionally rude and racist to Hajar to try and run her off, but finding the girl to be resilient, ends up liking her — which makes Greg feel cut out of Anushka’s favor.
In the second hour, “The Royal We,” Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishé play a couple (Michael and Shelly) who want different things from their relationship, but have trouble articulating that or moving forward (this is, it should be noted, pretty much entirely Michael’s fault). To get out of a cruise Shelly has planned for them, Michael embraces a jury summons he receives, and makes sure to get himself placed deliberating a murder trial so that he can continue to ogle a stunning fellow juror (Janet Montgomery). As Michael tries to delay what should be a clear verdict (instead of 12 Angry Men it’s more 1 Horny Man), Shelly continues on to the cruise by herself, attending all of the Romanov events without Michael, the heir, while befriending another passenger (Noah Wyle) and finding her own strength and desires along the way.
Both episodes, which run around 90 minutes each (making them more like movies), share some thematic similarities. For one, the descendants of the Romanoffs are kinda shits. At the very least, they are entitled, but at worst the men are bored wastes of space who don’t contribute much and resent their more driven partners. One need not travel to 1960s Manhattan to find restless men who take shelter in infidelity, but in 2018 it sure is a tired take.
The visuals of The Romanoffs, though, can be really lovely. Weiner has once again crafted a wonderfully detailed world, allowing spaces to be both grand and intimate. Everything oozes with style, especially in scenes that allow the characters to dress up in finery. The international settings are also used to good effect, like in the case of several moonlit walks that are tinged with danger, which is only sometimes realized. And yet, while this sumptuously styled world is fun to get lost in for awhile, the episodes don’t really earn their elongated runtimes.
On the more positive side, Weiner’s scripts are full of quirky humor, though it’s not always even (and some of the dialogue from the Bored Men in particular is especially onerous). But the star-studded cast does elevate everything, particularly Keller and Bourgoin in the first hour, and Kerry Bishé in the second (Bishé so much so that every moment not focused on Shelly feels like a mistake).
And yet, as great as these actors are, they can’t always save what are often thinly drawn characters, especially given their easily telegraphed motivations and schemes. Those waiting for twists won’t find them, which would be fine if that character drama landed. While there are moments that are genuinely great, and the whole series has a wonderful cinematic quality that can often be dreamy, there is too much that feels less considered, especially regarding the “plight” of its leading men which feels stale even if you generously consider it satire. Ultimately, while the finales for both hours feel targeted to be female-driven and uplifting, neither are earned. Whether that pattern continues throughout the other episodes remains to be seen, but for now — not to get all Bolshevik about it, but — maybe we really don’t need The Romanoffs.
The Romanoffs premieres October 12th on Amazon, which new episodes on Fridays.