The very first thing you should know about Amazon's The Romanoffs is that every single episode is loooooooong: 60-90 mins long. The second thing you should know about The Romanoffs is that it basically has nothing to do with the Romanoffs. Matthew Weiner's grand return to television for the first time since his Emmy award-winning Mad Men went off the air in 2015 is unfortunately nowhere near the caliber of that period drama.
Weiner brings quite a few Mad Men stars to his new project — Christina Hendricks and John Slattery star in their episodes — but those turns only serve to remind you how great they are on their other projects rather than draw you into the storyline of The Romanoffs. And that's because unlike Mad Men, The Romanoffs is an anthology series — not about Russia's most famous royal family, but rather about modern era people who claim to be related to the fallen scions. The show falls prey to all of the pitfalls of making an anthology series, particularly one that resets every episode rather than every season like American Horror Story.
The Romanoffs somehow moves both too quickly and too slowly. Its dramatic punches feel pulled because the audience never gets to connect with characters as they move through their lives. Instead we get brief glimpses, sometimes over days, sometimes over months, of who these people are and why their struggles are worth paying attention to. Except the series never makes an argument for the latter part. In the three episodes made available to critics before the series' Friday debut, each episode features a person who has convinced themselves of the grand delusion that they are truly descended from royalty and that somehow makes them special. The formula seems to be that that person is challenged by those around them to try and investigate why they feel superior. Ideally they would come to the conclusion that they aren't, and treating the people around them like trash based off of some delusion that they are better is a flawed way to view the world. However, only one of the three episodes I saw gets to that conclusion.
The pilot, "The Violet Hour," is the most tolerable of the screened episodes. Featuring Aaron Eckhart as an American nephew taking care of his Parisian aunt (Marthe Keller) in her twilight years, Eckhart's mild-mannered Greg ends up having a surprising connection with his aunt's housekeeper, a French woman of Muslim, South Asian descent (Inés Melab). There's drama between the three, and additional drama when Greg's French girlfriend gets thrown in the mix, but there is a conclusion that at least attempts to cut down the idea that the royal class has a divine right to stand above everyone else.
But to get there, audiences have to sit through an hour and a half of racist barbs thrown by an ignorant French aunt who believes she has the right to do so, because again, she's descended from a throne. While many viewers might find the conclusion of the episode sweet or even strong because it's the only one of the screened episodes that showcases real growth and change, it's the kind of viewing that uses marginalized people as plot devices. That's not to say Melab doesn't do phenomenal work in the episode. The strength and resilience with which she plays Hajar will be the only thing keeping viewers of color from immediately turning the show off. But that doesn't detract from the fact that, so far, this entire series is created from the viewpoint of the haves rather than the have-nots.
The second episode, "The Royal We," stars Kerry Bishe and Corey Stoll as a married couple who aren't quite the right fit and are both tempted to cheat. Unsurprisingly, the one with the Romanoff connection — which to be fair, is shrugged off by the character and glorified by their partner — is the one who actually goes through with ruining their relationship. The resentment underneath a happy facade is what ties them to this lionized history, and only pushes the audience to give less of a sh-- about that character's cosmic destiny and more about their partner, who truly doesn't deserve this betrayal.
And so here we are, at the end of this review, which was written in about half the time it would take to watch one episode of the series. The Romanoffs is both a completely bizarre and totally unsurprising follow up to Mad Men for Matthew Weiner. It's bizarre in the sense that the characteristics that drew you to Weiner's writing in the first place — the character-driven melodrama, the slow build and realization of the ambitions of those characters, and the deep connection you formed after watching them advance over seven years — are non-existent because of the format of The Romanoffs. What the audience is left with is the worst of Weiner's artistic tendencies. Racism (but to Prove! A! Point! about racism), sexism (but to Prove! A! Point! about sexism), classism (you know the drill by now) and a cast of characters that never move beyond the worst of their instincts because we're only with them for 90 minutes total. And yet somehow, making it through those 90 minutes is significantly more difficult than binging a season of Mad Men.
"The Violet Hour" and "The Royal We" will be available to stream back to back on Amazon Prime on Friday, Oct. 12. The third episode, "House of Special Purpose," stars Christina Hendricks and will begin The Romanoffs weekly drop schedule on Friday, Oct. 19.