Well, what would you do next if you were Matthew Weiner? If the possibilities are indeed endless, then a show like “The Romanoffs” — the much-awaited and lavishly made follow-up series from the “Mad Men” creator — makes perfect sense.
Freed from the burdens of translating Don Draper’s psyche in a sullen portrait of the 1960s, Weiner exhibits an almost giddy sense of play in Amazon’s indulgent, sometimes larky and certainly gorgeous eight-episode anthology, which portrays a random set of characters scattered around the present-day globe, each of whom shares a curious quirk that may as well be an affliction: They believe themselves to be descended from the Romanovs, the last royal family of Russia, all of whom were executed by revolutionaries in 1918 — according to the history books, at least. The romance of it is a whole other story, fueling a century’s worth of hoaxes and literary what-ifs.
It’s surprising to see that “The Romanoffs’ ” sense of drama is so low-stakes that it doesn’t even care if the claims its characters make are true. If you say you’re a real Romanov (or a Romanoff), then “The Romanoffs” believes you, if only for the sake of plumbing the insecurities and sense of entitlement that go along with a unique and at times absurd sense of suffering.
Although there are hints of an overall architecture to the story that might link the separate episodes (the first three were made available to critics), there are no burning questions, no big reveals and none of “Mad Men’s” existential and deliberately clouded angst. Despite that, in typical Weiner-esque fashion, critics received a list of plot twists that must not be revealed, which is easy to comply with because it seems so silly. The stories here are passably intriguing, but nothing about them screams spoiler alert.
Instead, at nearly 90 minutes apiece, episodes of “The Romanoffs” play together like a nice long weekend at an independent film festival in the mountains somewhere. Enjoy them with a glass of something dry and white, and don’t expect to be blown away by what you discover. The clear invitation here is to focus on beauty — the sets, the costumes, the inventiveness and, most of all, the impressively large cast Weiner has assembled. “The Romanoffs” hasn’t spared a dime on any of that.
The first episode (“The Violet Hour”) is set in Paris, where an American named Greg (Aaron Eckhart) lives and works in a mid-tier hotel with his demanding French girlfriend, Sophie (Louise Bourgoin), while trying to take care of his temperamental Aunt Anushka (Marthe Keller), who lives in faded glamour in an enviably vast apartment — a place Greg stands to inherit as Anushka’s sole relative.
After running through a series of home health aides hired by Greg, the agency sends Hajar (Inès Melab), a confident young Muslim woman wearing the hijab, whom Anushka initially treats with xenophobic scorn. The two women form a bond — a development anyone could see coming from a mile off, along with its consequences.
The aim here seems to be a morality lesson about greed,
peppered with Anushka’s
half-credible tales of her secret lineage. It’s a fine and forgettable little film, with lots of spring-in-Paris eye candy for Francophiles, but is that all there is?
The mood shifts with “The Royal We,” which stars Corey Stoll (“The Strain”) and Kerry Bishé (“Halt and Catch Fire”) as Michael and Shelly Romanoff, an unhappily married couple in Ohio who run one of those test-prep tutorial centers in a strip mall. Scheduled to go on a theme cruise marketed to Romanov pretenders and believers (it’s become its own cottage industry), Michael bails after he secretly falls for Michelle (Janet Montgomery), a woman he meets at jury duty. Michael encourages Shelly to go on the cruise alone, while he gets placed as a juror (with Michelle) on an open-and-shut murder trial, hoping to use the opportunity to seduce her.
Again, Weiner seems to be consciously shedding his reputation for intricacy in favor of something far easier and linear — a travelogue with life lessons. As Shelly tries to enjoy herself on a boatload of Romanov cosplay (and meets a charming stranger, played by Noah Wyle), Michael unwisely mucks with the life he takes for granted (and delays a jury verdict), all because of lust.
The Romanoffs — they’re just like a jillion other TV characters who give into temptation and even criminal impulse to get what they want. The big takeaway? Some people are good and some people aren’t.
Watching this, one begins to remember all the news releases and teases about this major production, which took a year to complete and traveled to seven countries to film on location. (And teetered in doubt, briefly, after a “Mad Men” writer said she had been sexually harassed by Weiner years earlier; he denied it and it seems to have blown over.) Did we really wait so long and travel so far for a show this basic?
Things veer toward different genres — a little bit ghost story, a little bit Hollywood farce — in the third episode, which critics are forbidden from reviewing until next week, which feels like a double-dog dare. Titled “House of Special Purpose,” it stars “Mad Men” alum Christina Hendricks as a movie star who immediately regrets her decision to travel to Austria to take over the role of the doomed Russian empress Alexandra in a highfalutin’ miniseries about the Romanovs.
production supplies “The Romanoffs” with a welcome and imaginative complexity (and Isabelle Huppert hamming it up as the miniseries’ lunatic director), and maybe I’ll have more to say about it when an embargo lifts.
Or maybe I won’t, because I’m not entirely sold on the idea that there’s going to be all that much to say about “The Romanoffs,” other than it’s mildly fun to watch.
While we wait to see whether further episodes offer a grander payoff, I suppose I could try a little harder to tease out a more lasting theme from the series thus far — perhaps one about entitlement, class and selfishness? Do we reveal ourselves as frauds the moment we try to claim status? (Does the same hold true for entitled TV shows?)
Even this feels like laying too much extra thought onto what Weiner is offering. Or have I stumbled into some other, slyer idea: Is “The Romanoffs” for real, or is it just pretending?
The Romanoffs (eight episodes, about 85 minutes each) begins streaming Friday with episodes 1 and 2 on Amazon. A new episode will stream weekly. (Disclosure: The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos.)