After finishing up one of the most acclaimed TV series of recent years, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner no doubt had his pick of next project on any number of cable or broadcast networks. Ultimately, Amazon Prime streaming offered him the artistic freedom and resources to play around with the very notion of what a TV series is supposed to be.
The Romanoffs, which premiered on October 12th and (unusually for Amazon) ran weekly through the end of November, feels less like a TV show and more like a series of loosely-related movies. Most of the first season’s eight episodes run longer than a standard television hour; in fact, a few of them hit feature length at 85 to 90 minutes, and none of them is paced like a normal TV show. The program also has a huge cast of notable faces in storylines that take place across the globe.
From the title, you might expect this to be a historical costume pageant about Russian aristocracy, in the vein of The Tudors or The Borgias. Instead, it’s a contemporary anthology drama in which each episode follows a different set of characters, all of whom claim (some legitimately, some probably not) to be descended from the infamous noble family that was massacred in 1917. If you watch carefully, characters from one episode may cross paths with those from another, usually without the show calling much attention to it, but for the most part the stories have no direct interaction.
In Paris, a bourgeois American (Aaron Eckhart) bends over backwards to dote on his shrewish, racist aunt (Marthe Keller), hoping to inherit her luxurious condo and her fortune when she inevitably drops dead. Elsewhere, a dickish husband (Corey Stoll) connives to get selected for jury duty so he won’t have to go on a cruise with his extraordinarily patient wife (Kerry Bishé). An American actress (Christina Hendricks) travels to Romania to film a miniseries about the Romanoffs, and immediately finds herself at odds with a pretentious director (Isabelle Huppert) who may be insane or may just be trying to drive her insane. On the verge of becoming a grandmother, a middle-aged New Yorker (Amanda Peet) struggles with a long-held secret about her husband’s best friend (John Slattery). An uptight society housewife (Diane Lane) is shocked by rumors about her children’s piano teacher (Andrew Rannells). A Mexican journalist (Juan Pablo Castañeda) develops feelings for a wealthy woman (Radha Mitchell) connected to a story he’s investigating. An American couple (Kathryn Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson) face a marital crisis after flying to Russia to adopt a child. Finally, a screenwriter (JJ Feild) gets stuck on a train seated next to an older woman (Adèle Anderson) very eager to share with him an elaborate story that he, at first, is not interested to hear.
Some of these stories are comedic. Some are sad. One takes a sharp turn that will make you suddenly hate characters you may have found sympathetic previously. Another does pretty much the opposite. Matthew Weiner is the credited director on all eight episodes. As he did on Mad Men, he takes his time to tell each story. The episodes have a very slow, considered pacing that may test some viewers’ patience. For a streaming series, the show seems to actively resist binge-watching. After each episode, I felt like I’d experienced a complete, cinematic story and needed a break before moving to the next one.
At the same time, the lack of an ongoing narrative left some of the stories feeling thin, or even gimmicky. Weiner has a frustrating tendency to use twist endings to put a button on multiple episodes. Some are clever, but others feel forced. The Christina Hendricks episode is, in my opinion, the season’s weakest entry. Its nonsensical ending made me question the point of anything that came before it. On the other hand, the final episode, which is very cleverly structured in Matryoshka format (a story within a story within a story), somehow pulls off the biggest and most outrageous gimmick, and makes it work even if you figure out the twist early.
Personally, my favorite episode is the one about the reporter in Mexico City. The plot doesn’t even really come to much, but I found myself very invested in the characters and enjoyed spending the time in their world. The Russian adoption episode is also very compelling, albeit much bleaker.
Season Verdict / Grade: B+
As an anthology show, episodes of The Romanoffs are kind of a mixed bag. Some are decidedly better than others, and the show’s deliberately slow pacing is bound to frustrate many viewers. That said, I found all of the episodes interesting on some level (which is more than I can say for Amazon’s sci-fi anthology Electric Dreams, for example) and a few of them are really engrossing. I may not think this is a new television masterpiece, but if a second season comes along, I’ll happily watch more of it.