For his first act after the triumphant end of his landmark series “Mad Men,” Matthew Weiner is bringing his opulent vision to Amazon for an ambitious new drama that lets him roam as free as he likes. The connective thread of the sprawling new series is ostensibly, as the title promises, “The Romanoffs,” the Russian royal family whose murders made them mythic. While each episode follows an entirely different story and cast of characters than the rest, all of them feature descendants of that troubled bloodline — or that’s what they claim, anyway.
With no way to know for sure, the Romanoffs — or Romanovs, depending — scattered across the world prefer to assume they’re part of something bigger and more compelling rather than accept the probability that they and their ancestors are just like anyone else. (And in fairness, who wouldn’t want to be special?) So outside the tenuous familial connections, the true through-line of the series, at least in the first three episodes screened for critics, is how aligning oneself with such a titanic narrative can engender a truly toxic combination of ego and fragility.
The first episode — or perhaps “installment” is more accurate, given that each tells a standalone story — immediately introduces us to that seemingly contradictory dynamic. Written by Weiner, “The Violet Hour” tells the twilight years story of Anushka (Marthe Keller) holding court in her enormous Parisian apartment, a family heirloom overflowing with mementos from generations past. Claiming Romanoff ancestry proves handy for her as a lifeline to hold onto whenever she gets lonely, which happens far more often than she’d care to admit.
But she also clings to the possibility of nobility as an unbeatable bragging right that gives her free rein to sneer at anyone she considers beneath her, most especially the revolving door of caretakers that her nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) hires to keep her occupied. When Hajar (Ines Melab), a young Muslim woman, walks through her door, Anushka ups the ante by spitting elitist, racist barbs that Hajar resigns herself to grinning and bearing. This back and forth can be very difficult to watch, even (especially) when the episode tries to smooth it over by forcing Hajar to express sympathy for a woman who wants anything but to do the same for her.
The second chapter — “The Royal We,” co-written by Weiner and Michael Goldbach — takes on the age-old story of a frustrated couple (Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishe) struggling to realize what happiness means for them both as a pair and as individuals. Michael (Stoll), unlike Anushka, only acknowledges his potential Romanoff ancestry with passing shrugs. But as Shelly (Bishé) slowly but surely realizes (with the help of their couples therapist dispensing healing buzzwords), his bored complacency only barely masks a simmering resentment that he can’t get his way whenever and however he wants — a trait she, through a startling side adventure, comes to attribute his Romanoff roots.
It’s unsurprising that Weiner, who directs every episode of “The Romanoffs,” would return to the creative well of superiority complexes after rendering such nuanced portraits of the same on “Mad Men.” Most of the characters on that celebrated series obsessed over the idea of leaving a legacy behind, whether through their work, family, social stature, or some combination thereof. By layering his new series with the weighty significance of the Romanoff history, Weiner fuels that same narrative fire. Anushka’s insecure boasting, Michael’s restless longing for satisfaction on his own terms, and the strange and incisive take in the third episode (currently under embargo, but the best of the bunch) are areas in which Weiner excels. Even when they’re maddening — and they are more often than not — they feel startlingly, painfully real.
But between the first two episodes, which drop together on Oct. 12 followed by single weekly installments thereafter, Weiner also reveals some of his limitations, especially insofar as conveying the counterparts to such egomania. The storytelling gulf between Stoll’s selfish character and Bishe’s hesitant one, for instance, feels enormous; the script may ultimately like hers better, but it understands his far more. And throughout the first three episodes, the biggest missteps come in “The Violet Hour,” which struggles to find nuance in Hajar’s story despite Melab’s beautifully expressive portrayal. That Hajar and Anushka are going to bond is inevitable, but the script never quite justifies it after so many scenes in which Anushka literally dismisses the entire Middle East as a culturally barren wasteland overflowing with people she’d rather describe as “cockroaches.” Hajar, despite the script’s best intentions to center her story as much as possible, is ultimately there to teach the wealthy white people surrounding her a lesson about tolerance.
It’s also hard not to imagine what “The Romanoffs” might have been like at a more reasonable runtime; each chapter is at least 90 minutes long, which ultimately makes them feel more like individual movies than episodes of television. It would be one thing if every scene served a distinct purpose, thus justifying the many extra minutes, but the themes quickly become repetitive. In the age when streaming options inspire narrative bloat, or otherwise encourage prominent creators to take as much time as they want in order to snag their services, there are still few series that have eschewed tighter edits to their advantage. “The Romanoffs,” despite its best efforts, does not seem to buck that trend.
When the story lets the series down, however, the impeccable production value lifts it back up. When Anushka takes Hajar on a tour of her gorgeous apartment, it’s hard not to stare in awe just as she intended at the intricate production design from “Mad Men’s” Chris Brown and Henry Dunn. Every costume, meticulously rendered by mastermind Janie Bryant (also of “Mad Men”) and Wendy Chuck, immediately tells a specific and revealing story about the characters. Weiner’s directing makes sense of the constant tonal shifts between intimate, bruising, splashy, and horrific scenes. And of course, the show has assembled a truly impressive roster of actors to make the material sing; the third episode especially gets its money’s worth from sharp performers like Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, and “Mad Men” alum Christina Hendricks. So even when “The Romanoffs” doesn’t always click into place, it can still be hypnotizing to watch its gears work to get there.
Drama, 90 mins. Premieres Friday Oct. 12 on Amazon.
Crew: Executive producers: Matthew Weiner, Semi Chellas, Kriss Turner Towner, Blake McCormick, Kathy Ciric.