The light, sweet tone of The Romanoffs is perfume covering the stench of cultural rot. Matthew Weiner’s first TV project since Mad Men is another portrait of white people in decline, exuding a malaise that often mingles with guilt over wanting more when they already have plenty. The title refers to the Romanov clan, one of the driving forces in Russian history until the Russian civil war, when the recently dethroned czar and his family were killed by Bolsheviks in 1918. The descendants are defined and yet not defined by their lineage.
As overseen by Weiner, who wrote or co-wrote many episodes and directed them all, The Romanoffs is an anthology series, with each installment the length of a short theatrical feature. There are no ongoing characters or plotlines carrying you through the first season. The only obvious connective tissue is the Romanov family itself, and, in a more general sense, the idea of being descended from finer people, royals forced to live among commoners. The family name doesn’t explicitly equal the idea of “whiteness” here, but the way the characters invoke it invites the association. No matter what misfortune befalls them, they can console themselves that their ancestors were royals; that they ultimately deserve the best life offers; and that the right to rule still runs in their veins, even though their kingdom fell a century ago.
Unlike Mad Men, this show is set in the present with fleeting glimpses of the past (the second episode includes a historical play staged during a cruise for Romanov-family descendants with a cast of little people, while the third episode concerns the production of a film about the Romanov family). The first two episodes are content to operate on perhaps two levels simultaneously, where Mad Men rarely settled for less than five, and the third episode is a satirical horror movie that plays like an unholy fusion of The Shining, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and François Truffaut’s film-about-filmmaking Day for Night, starring Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as a troubled star playing Alexandra Feodorovna, the last czarina; Jack Huston as Rasputin; and Isabelle Huppert as their director, who, let’s just say, is a piece of work. (Amazon forbids me from saying more.)
I have no idea where the rest of the series is going. Weiner is doling out plotlines on a need-to-know basis, just as he always has, and what details you can glean from IMDB won’t be much help to spoiler detectives. If the first episodes are representative, The Romanoffs is looser and more relaxed than Mad Men in ways that both please and frustrate. The women tend to be beleaguered and sometimes abused; the men weak, petty, and conniving; the sets and costumes sumptuous; and the music (a mix of classical and pop) very effective, if on-the-nose in a way that Mad Men rarely was.
The first episode focuses on Greg Moffat (Aaron Eckhart), an American who helps run a small hotel in Paris. He and his much younger girlfriend, Sophie (Louise Bourgoin), are trying not to seem too ghoulish as they wait for Greg’s aunt Anushka (Marthe Keller) to die and will Greg a fabulous apartment with a rich history. The first inhabitant of the place was the emperor Paul, who in Anushka’s words “liked it because he said he could hear the guillotine.” After World War II, it was bought by her grandfather as a gift for his mistress; for collateral on a loan, he used a Fabergé egg smuggled out of Russia and treated as a de facto savings account by the clan. Anushka wants to keep the apartment in the family but wants assurance that the family bloodline won’t die out. Greg, judging from the endearing way he dotes on children, would like to be a father, but Sophie doesn’t want kids and Anushka finds her hostility and greed off-putting, even though Anushka’s no prize herself. On top of all the talk of inheritance and genetic succession, there’s an ongoing argument about national identity, incarnated mainly by Anushka’s unpleasant relationship with her new caretaker, Hajar (Inès Melab), a young Muslim woman. Hajar is expected to absorb her unrelenting stream of racist invective. Anushka calls her “a terrorist,” demands that she taste the food she serves her to prove it isn’t poisoned, and tells friends (in earshot of Hajar at a produce market) that “France is not a breast with so much milk it can nurse the world.” Greg finds her rants offensive but doesn’t complain too loudly for fear of jeopardizing the prize he assumes he’ll claim when his seemingly indestructible aunt finally kicks it.
Weiner’s touch is a lot more sure when he’s detailing the curious ways of white folks than when he’s portraying people of color: Hajar’s family is barely developed, there’s an unfortunate echo of Driving Miss Daisy in her scenes with Anushka, and despite Melab’s naturalistic charm, the character rarely registers as much more than wryly stoic. But it’s still exciting to see characters on a lavishly produced American drama working an earnest discussion of right-wing nationalism and white identity politics into what might otherwise have felt like one of those touristy comedy-dramas that Woody Allen started making after he went to Europe to chase subsidies. There’s even a side trip into class consciousness, courtesy of a scene where a professor friend of Greg and Sophie’s laments how the middle class has disappeared from Paris, leaving only moneybags like Anushka and struggling poor people like Hajar. This episode resolves on a note that seems like it was supposed to play as an audacious punch line tying off all of Weiner’s rhetorical strands at once — the message seems to be, “The future is coming whether you like it or not” — but it mainly comes off as tone-deaf.
The second episode is much stronger, maybe because it returns Weiner to the United States and to a facsimile of his old stomping grounds. Corey Stoll plays Michael Romanoff, a standardized-testing consultant wasting away in suburbia. Halt and Catch Fire’s Kerry Bishé is his wife, Shelly, who supports him and (according to Michael) sets the terms of their relationship. The tale begins in couple’s therapy and never entirely leaves it, even when the characters split off into separate but parallel stories. Michael accepts an invitation to serve as a juror in a murder trial and contrives to prolong deliberations so that he can chase a beautiful fellow juror (Janet Montgomery) and avoid going on the aforementioned Romanov-themed cruise with Shelly. Despite the looming gaudiness of 7-Eleven and Subway in the backgrounds of shots, this episode reaffirms Weiner’s affinity for John Cheever, a primary influence on Mad Men, whose stories were often populated by upper-middle-class whites who were frustrated by the (sometimes imaginary, sometimes real) constraints they felt. Stoll makes a powerful impression here and not just because he has the best-written role in any of the episodes made available for review: By turns courtly, swaggering, insecure, and ominous, his performance is a lightning rod for many of Weiner’s preoccupations, including unearned entitlement, unarticulated depression, and the type of free-floating male rage that tends to unleash itself on convenient but undeserving targets. Bishé has less to work with — she’s defined mainly by how much she resents her mopey, pain-in-the-tuches boyfriend — but she’s beguiling going on the cruise by herself, and her scenes with another guest, Ivan Novak (ER’s Noah Wyle), ring true. A ship of fools is a perfect setting for a romantic comedy-fantasy about characters who are culturally adrift. “Where are your people from?” he asks her. “Scottish, Irish, whatever,” she says flippantly. “Who gives a shit?” The Romanoffs do. The past is their present.
*This article appears in the October 1, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!