HomeTelevisionAmazon's The Romanoffs is Just Bonkers Enough to be Brilliant TV

Amazon’s The Romanoffs is Just Bonkers Enough to be Brilliant TV

The Romanoffs
Photo Credit: Amazon Prime

The opening theme to Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs starts out big. Seven figures, presumably the Russian royal family – Tsar Nicholas the II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei walk into a room, led by soldiers, and are quite unceremoniously shot to death. Each of them falls to the ground, one by one, as blood pools around them, and Tom Petty’s “Refugee” plays as credits roll. The Romanoffs is not what you think it is – and that’s what makes it kind of great.

Eleven years off his work on the indelible Sopranos and only three years after the wonderfully beautiful end of Mad Men, showrunner Matthew Weiner is back with a show that examines a slice of American life much different than suburban New Jersey and bustling Madison Avenue. This time, on The Romanoffs, Weiner has crafted an anthology series surrounding eight individual and distinct stories set in present day that hardly seem to intersect at all other than the fact that everyone involved may or may not be linked to the former royal family of Russia. The concept itself sounds strange, because it is; but, deceptively, it really works.

With the first two episodes released simultaneously on Prime, and consequent episodes being added every Friday, The Romanoffs is the ideal series to watch if you can’t keep up with recurring series. Each episode appears to be self-containing, movie length, and features a fresh cast and new location. The through-line – aside from the Romanoff premise – rests on lofty themes, black comedy tones, and stellar performances from a laundry list of underrated character actors.

The first episode, entitled “The Violet Hour,” is an unusual series premiere wry with twists and turns, but ultimately settles on having a lot of heart. Featuring the criminally underrated Aaron Eckhart in his first meaty role in years, the episode tells the story of an American ex-pat (Eckhart) living in Paris struggling to take care of his sickly but unbelievably cruel aunt (played to perfection by Marthe Keller) with the help of a young Muslim nurse-in-training, played by notable newcomer Inès Melab. In the same way that New York becomes its own character on Mad Men, Paris shocks the senses in every street scene, looking as beautiful as it did in Midnight in Paris and Paris, Je t’aime.

“The Violet Hour” recalls much of Weiner’s other work, starting with a solid script. The dialogue feels natural yet meaningful, and characters introduce overarching themes organically without it feeling hamfisted. There’s much discussion around a portentous fabergé egg that certainly has its own unique payoff, and same can be said for the episode’s title. The premiere feels like reading a novel wherein every near-imperceptible glance between characters seems like a metaphor for something that might – and often does – pop up later in the episode.

The second episode in the series, “The Royal We,” despite focusing on a story and characters unrelated to the first, feels undeniably connected to it. In this one, we meet a moderately happy but mostly bored couple, played by the sensational and always great Corey Stoll, and the relatable though slightly annoying Kerry Bishé. In attempts to spice up their seemingly emotionally-vacant marriage, the two book a cruise devoted to learning more about Stoll’s Russian heritage.

Yet one jury duty summons and an attractive true crime lover played by Janet Montgomery throw a wrench in the plans. Like the series premiere, the plot wanders, twists, and turns into unfamiliar and downright strange territory, but it pays off to remain ignorant to it. The last five minutes of “The Royal We” manages to be downright shocking, chilling, darkly humorous, and empowering all at the same time – in other words, incredible TV.

So far, the connective threads between the episodes aren’t too far off from other Matthew Weiner properties, as if they all exist in the same universe. Namely, there’s tons of casual adultery, an overactive focus on traditions and bloodlines, and smoking – god, all the smoking. Don Draper would be thrilled to see all the lit cigarettes in his future of this show. There’s also more than several instances of dark humor on par with Mad Men’s infamous lawnmower episode, and enough Freudian themes for Tony Soprano and his psychiatrist to tackle. In “The Violet Hour,” Keller embodies Eckhart’s miserable aunt with such racist disdain that her racial epithets and verbal abuse become shockingly funny; in “The Royal We,” we see a group of little people paraded across a stage not unlike the minstrel show of Mad Men’s third season.

Again, so much of what happens in The Romanoffs sounds completely bonkers because it totally is – but it’s a testament to the power of Matthew Weiner’s writing and direction that everything comes together beautifully enough. Each episode’s strengths come from the astounding cast extracting the real and human from the bizarre and circumstantial.

We’ve only met a fraction of these supposed Romanoffs so far, but I’ve seen enough to know that whatever lies ahead in future episodes will undeniably entertain.

The Romanoffs Episode 1 & 2 Rating: 9/10

The Romanoffs airs weekly on Amazon Prime.



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