We take for granted now the amount of quality material made for cable and streaming services. Too much so, I think. Certain series of the past two decades have become like sacred texts. They are studied closely, books are written about them and they influence creators and TV execs everywhere.
Mad Men has become one such sacred text. Matthew Weiner’s series, rich in character development, literary in texture and full of sharp sociological insights, was a wildly ambitious reach and succeeded in that reach. Now, strangely, Weiner is the object of some scorn for not instantly succeeding again.
The Romanoffs (streaming weekly on Amazon Prime Video) has been available for a few days and much reviewed. Read the coverage and it is near-saturated in disappointment. See, it’s not Mad Men. But it was never meant to be and there is something bogus about much of the reaction to date.
It’s an anthology series. Separate stories exist in each episode and the only linking theme is the belief or claim by some character that they are descended from the family of the murdered Russian Czar Nicholas II. It’s a slender link and it seems it was not meant to be more than that. Each of the eight episodes is a different story, set among different characters in different locations.
What Weiner has done here – working with much of the creative team behind Mad Men – is create a set of glittering separate short stories. He hasn’t written the novel that so many critics wanted. It’s not a sacred text. The Romanoffs, based on what has streamed so far, is gorgeous, humane and slyly perceptive about human nature, especially in the matter of delusion. It’s not a major, important work with an accumulating power. Instead, its merits are immediately evident.
This first episode (two are available now and one will be released each week until the full eight episodes can be watched together) is The Violet Hour, and has only vague connections to the Russian czar’s family. That is anchored in the main character, Anushka (Marthe Keller), and her belief that she’s related to them. She lives in contemporary Paris, busy being haughty and demanding attention while chain-smoking her way through her last years.
When a Muslim care worker, Hajar (Inès Melab), arrives to assist her, Anushka reacts with knee-jerk racist insults. Hajar never responds and stays quietly mysterious in her benign demeanour. It is only when Anushka’s American nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) tries to intervene that emotional complexity comes to the surface. Greg came to Paris from Las Vegas years before and never left. His future really depends on inheriting his aunt’s grand apartment. He has a girlfriend who knows this and resents it.
The slow thaw between the elderly Anushka and the young but stoic Hajar is the meat of the drama, but it is barely dramatic at all. It’s a series of small steps that take the story toward the bittersweet. There are small surprises and tiny ironies. And what is it about, really? It’s about self-sacrifice over self-interest and obligations over perceived entitlements. While the canvas is large – the series is stunningly visual and opulent-looking – the result is a concise, perceptive pencil sketch.
The second episode, The Royal We, is a rocky-marriage drama. The self-aggrandizing Michael Romanov (Corey Stoll) pursues a woman while on jury duty and, meanwhile, his wife, Shelly (Kerry Bishé), engages in a dangerous flirtation while on a Romanov family cruise ship. The ending is another case of a sharp narrative twist and is more cunningly done than in The Violet Hour. The Michael character, all ego and seeking ways to be free of convention, is the male type who thrived in the Mad Men world.
The third episode comes this week and it stars Christina Hendricks as an actress cast in a miniseries about the Romanovs. Echoes of Hendricks playing Joan Holloway on Mad Men will again force comparisons, but that’s a waste of time. Matthew Weiner has moved forward and is working with a new template here. It is wrong-headed of the audience and critics to expect another masterpiece. Best to enjoy the minor works that enhance our understanding of the major works, and not take great TV for granted.