‘The Ro­manoffs’ is a lav­ish-but-empty re­turn to TV from Matthew Weiner

The Palm Beach Post - - ACCENT - By Hank Stuever Wash­ing­ton Post

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 this in­dul­gent, some­times larky and cer­tainly gor­geous eight-episode an­thol­ogy (pre­miered Fri­day on Ama­zon), 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’s” 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 goes 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 test­prep 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-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’ IF YOU WATCH

“The Ro­manoffs” Episodes: Eight to­tal, with episodes 1 and 2 stream­ing now. A new episode will stream weekly.

Plat­form: Ama­zon Prime Video

Run­ning time: About 1 hour, 25 min­utes each (Disclosure: The Wash­ing­ton Post is owned by Ama­zon founder Jef­frey Be­zos.) minis­eries about the Ro­manovs.

The show-within-a-moviepro­duc­tion 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 the 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?

CHRISTO­PHER RAPHAEL / AMA­ZON

Marthe Keller (from left), Inès Me­lab and Aaron Eck­hart in “The Ro­manoffs,” the new show from “Mad Men” cre­ator Matthew Weiner.

JAN THIJS / AMA­ZON

Corey Stoll and Janet Mont­gomery in “The Ro­manoffs.”

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