From the creator of the critically acclaimed Mad Men comes The Romanoffs, a big-budget anthology series. Is it as good as its predecessor? No, writes Caryn James.

Is Matthew Weiner’s anthology series, The Romanoffs, as good as the first show he created, Mad Men? In a word, no.

Is it nearly as good in a different way? Not really.

Is it any good at all? Sure, but more in slight, discrete pieces rather than the overall scheme, which follows contemporary characters who believe, or claim, that they are descended from the family of the murdered Russian Tsar Nicholas II. Except for that tenuous link, each of the eight episodes features different stories, settings and characters.

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The concept is rich with possibilities for exploring class, identity, family history, and the 21st Century’s lingering obsession with royals. But Weiner merely glances at those themes. Instead he discovers stunning locations – the series was shot in seven countries in Europe, North America and Asia – and sends characters as flat as cardboard cutouts traipsing around them.

The second episode’s supposedly clever final twist is simply implausible

The strongest Mad Men echo arrives in the opening credits. The camera glides through the rooms of a Russian palace, past regal ancestral portraits. The tsar and his family enter another room and suddenly Tom Petty’s Refugee blasts onto the soundtrack. Bolshevik soldiers begin shooting and the Romanoffs become bloody corpses on the floor. Different though it is from Mad Men, the sequence shares its dynamism.

Nothing else in the first two episodes comes close to the opening’s visceral pull. The first episode, The Violet Hour, is set in Paris. Taking advantage of postcard-pretty side streets, walks along the Seine and glorious shifts of light, it has the entertaining, escapist feel of a travel show.

With convincing fierceness, Marthe Keller plays Anastasia Le Charnay, a grande dame who lives in a sumptuous apartment, where a Russian icon and a giant Fabergé egg sit on a shelf. Her American nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and his heartless girlfriend plan on inheriting the place, the sooner the better. Inordinately proud of her Romanoff heritage, the aunt is also a racist who responds to the arrival of her new Muslim caregiver, Hajar, by saying, “Take your bombs and go home.”

The backdrop is more amusing and revealing than the main plot

Inès Melab is wonderfully nuanced and enigmatic as Hajar. All the actors do what they can, but Weiner, who directed every episode, merely sketches out the characters’ grief, greed, duplicity and ethnic identity, as he barrels toward a final, easy plot twist. It’s the kind of snap-curve, short-story ending that a brief film might get away with. But this episode is nearly 90 minutes long, plenty of time for characters to have developed.

Royal connections

The second episode, The Royal We, does very little with the irony of its title. Corey Stoll plays Michael Romanoff and Kerry Bishé is his wife, Shelly. They are a middle-class American couple we first see in that clichéd location, a marriage counselor’s office. Michael takes advantage of jury duty to have a fling with another juror, while Shelly goes on a cruise where she flirts with a Romanoff-by-marriage, Ivan (Noah Wyle). There is a sad undertow in the theme that no one is ever really happy. It’s too bad Michael and Shelly actually state that, bluntly, at different times. It is impossible to feel sorry for Michael, who has the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old, or Shelly, who seems resigned to a mediocre life. And this episode’s supposedly clever final twist is simply implausible.

The backdrop is more amusing and revealing than the main plot. Shelly’s cruise ship includes a convention of Romanoff descendants, whose grand ball is kitsch comedy to everyone except the self-serious dinner guests. In tiaras and monocles, they cosplay their heritage as if they were expecting Nicholas and Alexandra to pop by. The dinner entertainment features a slapstick pageant in which the last Tsar’s family, along with Rasputin, are all played by actors with dwarfism. Only Shelly and Ivan recognise the pageant for the inadvertently jaw-dropping, offensive spectacle it is. If only Weiner had devoted more time to those deluded Romanoffs. Or maybe he will. Only three episodes were sent to critics, so who knows?

In his Mad Men days, Weiner was notorious for controlling information about future episodes, and that hasn’t changed. Of those three early instalments, the third is embargoed and can’t be reviewed now, which seems wildly counterproductive. If that episode, which features Isabelle Huppert as the director of a Romanoffs miniseries and Christina Hendricks from Mad Men as an actress playing the Tsarina, turned out to be mind-bending, possibly supernatural and more intriguing than the others – well, I wouldn’t be allowed to say.  

It’s understandable that the creator of a series as culturally significant as Mad Men, likely to be his defining achievement, would want to move forward with an entirely new template. It is incomprehensible that The Romanoffs is so self-indulgent and wrong-headed.

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