Amazon is planning on spending $8 billion on original content this year, a billion more than rival Netflix. The two streaming giants are in an arms race, each sweeping up reliable TV content creators like Shonda Rhimes, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Ryan Murphy to bolster libraries already bursting with titles. The guiding philosophy here seems to be that if you have the means, you might as well shell out. It’s a win-win for both the platforms and the artists; Netflix and Amazon get the highly anticipated new works from some of television’s brightest minds and the creators get to execute their vision with little to no creative or budgetary oversight. The only party that may end up losing is the viewer, now more likely to suffer through self-indulgent series when there are no constraints.
This is the chief problem with Amazon’s new series The Romanoffs, from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Despite allegations levelled at him toward the beginning of the #MeToo movement, Weiner was one of the most sought-after creators in Hollywood, with Mad Men hailed as one of the most important achievements in the prestige TV era. Amazon won the bidding war for Weiner’s next project and gave Weiner free rein to tell whatever kind of story he wanted to.
It turns out Weiner wanted to tell several different stories, jumping on the bandwagon of Hollywood’s latest trend, the anthology series. The result is a sprawling, messy, globetrotting affair, with each episode of the eight-episode season telling a different story with a different cast, only tangentially connected by the fact that some of the characters believe themselves to be living decedents of the Russian royals the Romanovs, slain during the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s an intriguing, but ultimately thin premise, and to say much more about it would certainly draw the ire of Weiner, who has continued the strict “no spoilers” policy he employed back in the Mad Men days; each screener was accompanied with a page of spoiler alerts that critics are not to mention.
One would think that an anthology format would amplify Weiner’s strengths. One of the ways that Mad Men stood out amongst other prestige TV shows was its ability to tell rather self-contained, novelistic stories with deep themes and clearly defined beginnings, middles, and ends. However, the two episodes watched for review do not have the focus of even some of Mad Men’s lesser episodes, and with each episode over a ninety-minute feature-length runtime, they do little to warrant the bloat. Many interesting topics are broached, but before Weiner digs in and explores the idea, he loses interest and moves on to something else. If you paid money to watch these in a cinema, you’d think you were watching one of Woody Allen’s ponderous late career works and wonder what the point was.
Opening installments The Violet Hour and The Royal We do feature lots of Weiner’s trappings; they’re interested in class and the problems of the wealthy, the repressed emotions of an older generation, vague depression, marital strife, suburban malaise, and feature lots of casual cruelty. Like Mad Men, the production design and costumes are jaw-droppingly great, and Weiner gets winning performances from his star-studded cast, but still, nothing in these first two episodes scream Must-Watch TV.
The Violet Hour is set in modern-day Paris and features Marthe Keller as the fabulously prickly Anushka. Though she does some stellar acting, the real star of the episode is Anushka’s extravagant, historic apartment, which Anushka’s American nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and his difficult French girlfriend Sophie (Louise Bourgoin) hope to inherit. Most of the episode follows the relationship between Anushka and her new caretaker, Hajar (Inès Melab), a young Muslim woman. Anushka is blatantly racist and nationalist toward Hajar despite Hajar being born and raised in France. The whole thing eventually plays like a retread of Driving Miss Daisy, with the two forming a bond that doesn’t feel necessarily earned. Add in a shmaltzy third-act, and what could have been an interesting story about class, religion, race and legacy becomes something far slighter.
Worse is The Royal We which finds Corey Stoll playing a caricature of a Weiner male protagonist. As Michael Romanoff, Stoll is disaffected, unhappy, and “trapped” in a marriage to Shelly (Kerry Bishé), who by all accounts appears to be a catch. When Shelly books a Romanov themed cruise to bring her and her husband closer together, Michael works hard to prolong his jury duty in an open and closed case to avoid attending. Had the episode stuck with this bad faith twist on 12 Angry Men and wrapped everything up in an hour, as both parties experience time apart with attractive strangers (Janet Montgomery, Noah Wyle), The Royal We could have been a successful, amusing little effort, but instead it takes a weird, dark turn that leaves an unpleasant taste.
It’s hard to accurately write a pre-air review for The Romanoffs when each episode promises to be its own entirely different beast. It’s possible and even highly likely given Weiner’s track record that he’ll have greater success in subsequent installments, but despite stellar acting, gorgeous visuals (even if the direction is uninspired), and snappy dialogue, the first two episodes do little to inspire more than a shrug. The Romanoffs that populate these episodes may believe themselves to be descended from royalty, but the series is entirely too common.
The Romanoffs arrives on Amazon Prime Video on Friday the 12th of October.