Of all the new fall shows, and there are very many of them, the new anthology series from “Mad Men” man Matthew Weiner, called “The Romanoffs,” has been at the top of my curiosity list. Is it possible for Weiner to equal, never mind top, one of the best dramas of TV’s golden era? And how can Weiner, a master of the season-long arc and gradual character development (think Peggy Olson season one of “Mad Men” versus Peggy Olson season seven) really do his thing here, since the Amazon show is made up of eight self-contained episodes?
I’m pleased to say that Weiner has come up with a fine new series, one that defies comparison to “Mad Men” because of its rare format and its exquisite international settings. Each episode is, essentially, a movie, at movie length, and the only concrete thing that links the episodes is that a character in each one is connected to — or claims to be connected to — the Romanov family, the Russian dynasty whose rule ended in murder and exile 100 years ago. The three episodes Amazon released for review — all of them contemporary stories — lightly glance off one another, as the Romanov and Romanoff names stay in play and a few themes overlap; but they are discrete pieces, a collection of short stories hanging together loosely and, at times, provocatively.
Watching “The Romanoffs,” I felt as though I was seeing material that I haven’t seen a hundred times before on TV. Tonally, the episodes range from the paranoia of Alfred Hitchcock and the comic pathos of Neil Simon to the literary sensuality of Eric Rohmer, but they all work together to form a kind of dramatic Weinerian atmosphere of their own (Weiner directed all eight episodes). Here is a breed of strange, unbearable people, Weiner seems to be saying, living in the shadow — knowingly or unconsciously, through generational memory — of their ancestors. Their sense of entitlement is fierce and repugnant — not unlike white supremacy — while they are such pretty, civilized, cosmopolitan people. The show is also elevated by the kind of astute dialogue Weiner deployed in “Mad Men,” those exchanges and monologues that operate on many psychological and cultural levels and lend themselves to later interpretation. I imagine “The Romanoffs” best watched as “Black Mirror” is best watched — one installment at a time, with space in between to savor each.
The first episode, the best of the three I saw, revolves around the aging Anushka, played in a raging and outrageously good performance by Swiss actress Marthe Keller. Called “The Violet Hour,” it makes it clear that Anushka thinks of herself as nobility thanks to her Romanoff ancestry and her gigantic inherited Paris apartment containing historical treasures. The company that supplies her with caretakers sends her a patient young Muslim woman named Hajar (Ines Melab), and Anushka can’t contain her racism and condescension, which is as ugly as Paris is gorgeous. She treats Hajar like a slave. It’s hard to watch the verbal abuse, and the wan complicity of Anushka’s nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), and Hajar’s willingness to disregard the hatred, but the story, with its ironic ending, also forms a fascinating take on the delusions of racial superiority.
As a Romanov descendant in episode two, “The Royal We,” Corey Stoll delivers a character plagued by dissatisfaction — but unaware of and disinterested in its roots. He wants this, he needs that, and his DNA won’t let him settle.
The third episode, a clever meta-tale called “The House of Special Purpose,” also revolves around an impossible older woman, this time an unstable director played by Isabelle Huppert, who, like Keller, is a force of nature. (Is Weiner referencing his own difficult work temperament after “Mad Men” writer Kater Gordon accused him of sexual harassment last year? It seems quite possible.) Weiner has cast his show flawlessly, at least in the first three episodes, and the performances by Keller and Huppert alone deserve special note. They embody the ego, and the insecurity, of those to the manor almost born.
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Marthe Keller, Corey Stoll, Kerry Bishé, Noah Wyle, Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, Paul Reiser
On: Amazon. First two episodes stream on Friday, followed by single episodes each week.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.