Amazon’s new series The Romanoffs comes from Matthew Weiner, who created Mad Men, my favorite show not hosted by Alex Trebek. Early word on his new anthology was that Jeff Bezos sent down a thundercloud of million-dollar bills and no obvious network notes. So Romanoffs is the kind of TV series that used to exist in only in magical realist novels: Eight episodes, with all different casts, shot on multiple Earth continents, with a let’s-say-conceptual narrative about contemporary people claiming royal Russian ancestry.
A new kind of arty event series? Awesome! Terrifying? Weiner loves film history: Recall Don Draper watching Antonioni on his lunch break, back when humans had lunch breaks. So he knows how money-bins of budget plus Coppolas of ambition often drive superstar creators mad with auteurist ambition. And even the least-edited version of Heaven’s Gate is merely 30 Steven Universes long. The three Romanoffs episodes sent for review all run feature-length.
Those episodes are sweet, beautiful to look at, very sincere, kinda dopey: neither armageddon nor second coming. The premiere swirls family melodrama with real estate envy. Marthe Keller plays Anushka, a Parisian grande dame claiming Tsarist descent. Her American nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) waits patiently to inherit her glorious apartment. Then a caregiver Hajar (Inès Melab) knocks on Anushka’s door. Hajar happens to be Muslim. Anushka happens to be a racist xenophobe. “We burned Constantinople,” she brags, like the Crusades was a game her team won.
There are noir-ish implications, with Louise Bourgoin as Greg’s plotting femme fatale. And there are moments of swooning romance: Touristic Paris, all baguettes and monuments. That travelogue feel extends to the America-set second episode, where cheerful Shelly (Kerry Bishé) and husband/Romanoff-of-the-week Michael (Corey Stoll) embark on separate adventures. She goes on a cruise; he goes to jury duty. Episode 3 transatlantics back to Austria, where a Hollywood star (Christina Hendricks) wonders if her director (Isabelle Huppert) has gone mad with (ah ha!) auteurist ambition.
Hendricks and Huppert are thrilling, but their duel turns dire, smashing metafiction with embarrassing supernatural twists. Weiner’s sentimental streak softens the bleakness of episode 2’s marital joust, and tilts the premiere’s Parisian foray into fairy-tale absurdity. But good acting abounds. Bishé shines with sad cheer. Stoll darkens, scary and funny. Melab is a true discovery. Eckhart looks stoked to be in Paris.
There are narrative cues connecting these stories, suggesting a saga we’ll only understand after eight episodes. The soundtrack’s swell: Eurhythmics, “Sweet Jane,” Tom Petty’s “Refugee” as a theme song in every sense of the phrase. There are so many rooms: big rooms, impressive rooms, gorgeous, but a bit empty. Which sums up The Romanoffs, really. It can be a sharp social comedy about excess, considering nostalgia for murdered monarchs as an all-encompassing phenomenon tapping into immigration, western isolationism, the loneliness of contemporary life. But it’s also an enervating exemplar of modern excess, in awe of its own Business Class decadence. The intention is a global epic. It’s more like Black Mirror for white privilege. B