Television

The Romanoffs Is Prestige TV at Movie Length

Some episodes merit Mad Men–style dissection, but others are just bloated and lethargic.

In a scene from The Romanoffs, an elderly woman sits in a richly decorated room and looks on as a younger woman in a hijab stands on a ladder, cleaning the chandelier.
Marthe Keller and Inès Melab in The Romanoffs.
Amazon Studios

The Romanoffs, Matthew Weiner’s follow-up to Mad Men, arrives on Amazon this Friday like the ottoman-length box the online retailer sometimes uses to ship a pack of tennis balls: needlessly oversized. All eight episodes of The Romanoffs are discrete, self-contained, 90-minute stories about the descendants of the royal Romanovs, who were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Through the first three extremely uneven installments (all that were made available for review), the Romanov lineage seems to be a poisonous one, conferring on its progeny an embittered sense that they deserve better—that having been done wrong by history, they can do wrong to others. The show is intimately concerned with the moral vacuity and soul rot of rich white people (a racist, wealthy Frenchwoman; a self-pitying, amoral husband; a controlling and cruel director) who have learned nothing from their own brush with ancestral annihilation—except how to be more entitled. And as the show grapples, textually, with hubris and decline, it tangles with it extratextually too, so oversized and sporadically lethargic that it can feel like it’s daring you to keep watching.

Each episode begins from a place of standard realism, focusing on financially comfortable characters who are nonetheless deeply unsatisfied, and then begins to develop distinct genre overtones. (The first two will be available on Amazon Friday; the remaining six will be released on a weekly basis.) The first, the very bad “The Violet Hour,” reveals itself to be a toothless and deeply unappealing romantic comedy, as if late-period Woody Allen directed Driving Miss Daisy. In it, the older, elegant, and vituperative Anushka (Marthe Keller), a Romanoff who lives in a palatial French apartment, verbally abuses the hired help while being attended to by her nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), who is patiently waiting for her to die so he can inherit said apartment. A new caregiver, the lovely, spunky Hajar (Inès Melab), a Muslim Frenchwoman who wears a hijab, gives Anushka occasion to spill racist invective—“Take your bomb and go home … I need a caregiver, not a terrorist”—before winning her over. Hajar’s charm and kindness procure for her a lunkhead Prince Charming, a wan conclusion to a 90-minute episode of nothing much.

The second episode, the decent-by-comparison “The Royal We,” begins as an estranged-marriage drama between the passive, sulky Michael Romanov (Corey Stoll) and the not-entirely-fleshed-out Shelly (Kerry Bishé)—who must see something in her husband, but nothing that the script shares with the audience— before taking a nicely twisted turn toward the thriller. Both partners engage in flirtations, Michael on jury duty, Shelly on a Romanov family cruise ship (with, it should be said, a resplendently swoony Noah Wyle). While Shelly’s experiences with Michael’s appalling relatives lead her to believe that she understands him and can forgive his flaws because they are somehow part of the Romanov DNA, Michael’s experience has convinced him that he is not bound by the most basic morality. He is a classic Weiner character: an egotistical, occasionally alluring jerk whose overconfidence covers up deep insecurity. His surprising comeuppance makes for a bracingly happy unhappy ending—and may almost convince you to come back the next week for Episode 3.

While it would thrill me to hoist Matthew Weiner with his own spoiler-crazed petard and respect his wishes not to discuss that third episode—the only one made available to me that I would describe as “good”—I have opted to ignore his self-defeating instructions. In “House of Special Purpose,” Christina Hendricks stars as an actress cast in a miniseries about the Romanovs who is at odds with its powerful, unorthodox director played by Isabelle Huppert. There are shades of Hitchcock, including direct allusions to Rebecca and Notorious, as well as ghost stories and other spookiness, and all of this action juices the themes. This episode is the only one of the three to suggest that The Romanoffs might be worth examining in anything like the granular detail with which people dissected Mad Men. It delves into the connection between royalty and celebrity, the coercion of women in the entertainment business, and, most interestingly, some of the thornier parts of Weiner’s own reputation, using a proxy female director to explore the way vile behavior might be excused in “geniuses” and justified as a necessary byproduct of good work.

It has become a cliché for the makers of TV shows to tout them as movies, as in: “It’s really like a movie, stretched out over eight episodes.” The run time of each episode of The Romanoffs, all of which Weiner directed and wrote or co-wrote, suggests an ambitious corollary: “It’s really like eight movies.” (Hey, it’s been done before.) But despite running the length of a movie, The Romanoffs unfolds at the unhurried pace of a prestige TV drama, and this makes for an unhappy combination. A TV show is a long-term relationship: Plot holes, underdeveloped characters, fuzzy motivations are also potential rabbit holes, places for the story to go. But in a self-contained, 90-minute burst, in a story that you know is supposed to end relatively soon, this pacing is a kind of provocation: How long until you pull out your second screen?

Weiner’s desire to control how audiences consume his work—unspoiled and unbinged—whatever their own preferences, has, in the case of The Romanoffs, turned out to be thoroughly self-defeating. Like its characters, the show continuously puts its worst, least interesting foot forward, aristocratically expecting you’ll stick around to see the next step. But the power of a Matt Weiner show is that it’s always been made with enough exacting care that even its mistakes can be parsed as intentional. Is The Romanoffs self-defeatingly overlong, uneven, and withholding, a gargantuan expansion of time, energy, and money with no momentum and no arc that amounts to a just-OK TV show—or is all of this a perfect reflection of its themes: the uneven, overlong lineage of a royal family that, like history, has no momentum or arc and survives thanks to a gross misallocation of resources?

Speaking to the New York Times, Weiner explained that he selected the series’s structure out of concern for the audience. “I’m not a trailblazer or a disrupter,” he said. “I’m just thinking in terms of the audience: Wouldn’t it be nice to have something that was on once a week that you didn’t have to catch up with and you could watch in any order?” I’m sure this isn’t his preferred result, but watching in any order means you can choose not to watch some of them at all. That’s what I’d do.