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‘The Romanoffs’ is aesthetically pleasing but otherwise unsatisfying

| Friday, October 26, 2018

Diane Park | The Observer

Three years after the critically acclaimed “Mad Men” ended, Matthew Weiner — the show’s creator — has returned with “The Romanoffs.” In this new project, an anthology series, each episode features a different cast and a seemingly unrelated story, with the exception that some of the characters believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian House of Romanov, about whom little is widely known other than their execution at the hands of Bolsheviks in 1918.

“The Romanoffs” is not a period drama that provides interesting history — or even creative speculation — as to what happened following this massacre. Beyond the title sequence, very little of the show demonstrates that this event is even relevant to whatever the given story is. Instead, each episode — at least the first three of which run about 90 minutes — is merely a glimpse into the modern life of these pretty ordinary, albeit privileged, people. I’m not entirely convinced “The Romanoffs” is about anything else.

“The Violet Hour,” the first episode, stars Aaron Eckhart as the nephew of a wealthy, racist old woman who struggles to accept that her new caregiver is a Muslim. Set in Paris, much of this episode is in French and subtitled. The sets are beautiful, the scenery and French language contribute to the exquisiteness of the show. A mention of a Faberge egg is the most significant reference to the illustrious Romanovs. The stars almost deliver convincing performances, but the problematic nature of some of the dialogue makes that somehow questionable. Offensive words toward minorities and the less-than-wealthy plague this story to the point that it’s hard to tell if the writers wanted all of the characters to be abhorrent or are blind to propriety. Given the allegations of sexual harassment against Weiner, either is possible.

The second episode “The Royal We,” transports viewers to a suburban America where Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishé play a couple with marital struggles. One of them embarks on a cruise for descendants of the Romanovs and makes the history more present in this installment, and a few witty quips about the different spellings of the name work their way into conversation. With numerous people on the cruise who believe themselves connected to the royals, a caricature of Russian culture — complete with costumes and shattering shot glasses once they’ve been emptied of vodka — occurs.

The third episode, “The House of Special Purpose,” is composed primarily of meta-moments in which a mini-series called “The Romanovs” is being filmed. Christina Hendricks — formerly of “Mad Men” — plays the female lead of this drama, which is almost the period piece I wanted “The Romanoffs” to be. Simultaneously suspenseful and thoroughly confusing, this episode offers the most in terms of relevance to the House of Romanov. As a minor character puts it, “Everyone says they’re related [to the Romanovs], but no one really is.”

With episodes as long as movies, “The Romanoffs” tries to do too much. There might be some subtle wisdom in the unlikable characters who have to struggle through the human experience, even if their ancestors were royal, but there’s a plethora of unnecessary drama. The effect is one of watching a compelling film but feeling unsatisfied in the end. So far, each installment has ended with a shock factor that has little hope of being mentioned again because the stories — up to this point — have almost nothing to do with each other.

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