TV Review: The Romanoffs is satisfying melodrama

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's anthology series about descendants of the Russian royal family stars Isabelle Huppert, Christina Hendricks and Aaron Eckhart

THE ROMANOFFS (Matthew Weiner). Eight episodes, streaming weekly on Friday on Amazon Prime. Rating: NNN

Three years after Don Draper’s final ad pitch, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is back with The Romanoffs, an anthology series following the lives of self-proclaimed descendants of the Russian royal family.

Each episode is focused on a different set of contemporary characters with loose, if not entirely made up, connections to the House of Romanov. If you’re not up to date on your Russian history, here’s all you need to know to understand the series: The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia for three centuries until 1917. The following year, Czar Nicholas II, his wife and their five children were shot and bayonetted to death by the Bolsheviks.

With a runtime of around 90 minutes, each episode feels like a movie. In the premiere episode – the first three were sent to critics – we meet Anushka (Marthe Keller), a temperamental, wealthy Parisian and her American nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart). After Anushka fires her latest caretaker, Greg hires a young Muslim nurse-in-training, Hajar (Inés Melab) to look after his elderly aunt. The episode focuses on Anushka and Hajar’s fraught relationship – early on, Anushka’s cries, “I need a caretaker, not a terrorist” – exploring themes of European nationalism, immigration and identity. The set-ups are sometimes obvious (it’s not surprising that an old white aristocrat like Anushka is racist), but the way the characters’ beliefs evolve throughout the episode is surprising. 

In the second episode, Michael (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) weasels his way into jury duty so he can avoid going on a themed cruise for Romanov descendants with his wife, Shelly (Kerry Bishé). The third episode gets a bit meta. Olivia (Mad Men star Christina Hendricks) is an A-list American actress shooting a Romanovs miniseries overseen by a haughty director, Jacqueline, (Isabelle Huppert) when things take a horror-esque turn. (This isn’t a spoiler. The moment Olivia steps off a plane into a creepy, blood-red Austrian hotel room, the viewer knows something is off). As Olivia and Jacqueline, Hendricks and Huppert are captivating as foes with different creative visions who are also allies in male-dominated Hollywood. The episode is dark and playful, and out of the first three of the series, is the most deserving of the 90-minute runtime.

Aesthetically, The Romanoffs is beautiful. There are indulgent shots of the grandiose Parisian apartment featured in the first episode and the camera lingers on opulent costumes worn at the Romanov family cruise ship conventions. The script is witty and is unpredictable some plot twists are almost too unbelievable, but make for satisfying melodrama and Weiner’s jammed the series chock-full of stars, including Mad Men alum John Slattery, Jay R. Ferguson and Cara Buono.

With episodes coming out weekly, this drama isn’t designed to be binged. But it’s not like you’d want to. Episodes sometimes drag on and don’t always justify the long running time. There are climactic resolutions, but it takes too long to get there.

This is the first project from Weiner since Mad Men writer Kater Gordon accused him of sexual harassment while working on the AMC show. It’s hard not to think of the situation since The Romanoffs is rife with themes of misogyny and violence against women, whether in the workplace or relationships.

And although the empathy is always with the women who are being harassed and gaslit, as a viewer, it’s hard not to remember that Weiner has repeatedly denied creating a hostile work environment for Gordon. Whether that affects your overall view of the show or not, the off-screen drama looms large. | @SamEdwardsTO

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