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The Fault in Our Czars.

The Romanoffs’ first two episodes premiere Friday, October 12 on Amazon. Following this, there will be a new installment each week. This is a spoiler-free review of the first two, “The Violet Hour” and “The Royal We.”

Amazon’s new anthology dramedy series, The Romanoffs, is the kind of abstract “show about everything and nothing” that one can assemble, and get away with, if – say – you have the clout of being the creator and showrunner of Mad Men.

Yes, it’s been three years since Mad Men sold its last ad and Matthew Weiner is back with an engaging, but ultimately formless, quirky movie festival disguised as a streaming series. In The Romanoffs, the only connective tissue between the episodes is that someone in the story is (or thinks they are) a descendant of the Russian Romanov dynasty. The family’s last remaining Czar-connected members were famously executed by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918.

It’s a practically logline-less show containing no clear hook, or way of talking your friends into watching, except for the names you can shout out: Weiner. Aaron Eckhart. Corey Stoll. Noah Wyle. Mad Men alum Christina Hendricks and John Slattery. Amanda Peet. Diane Lane. And many many more. It’s filled to the brim with talent and, from the looks of the first two episodes (which drop on Friday), it’s about men and women who feel unfulfilled in life. Some scheme to make things better while others simply lash out at the world because they feel encroaching dread or paralyzing loneliness. The Romanov/off backdrop exists to provide us with a sinisterly grand and tragic past with which to juxtapose the current story. It plays a bigger role in some tales than in others.

In “The Violet Hour,” which we’re meant to view first, Aaron Eckhart’s American expat struggles to please, and care for, an aging – and quite racist – French aunt (Marthe Keller) who boasts about her Romanov heritage. Eckhart’s character then finds his own ruin, and salvation, in a young Muslim caregiver played by Inès Melab. In “The Royal We,” Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishé play a married couple who, in the midst of a rut, going on separate vacations, which include co-stars Janet Montgomery and Noah Wyle. Neither episode has much in common save for both of them, at times, feeling like darkly comedic rom-coms involving strangers meeting under contrived and rather heightened circumstances. Results, as expected, vary.

If there’s one thing that’s genuinely surprising about both chapters – which are solid on their own – is that in the final five minutes they transform into something wryly wonderful and crazy. You might be able to track the cliches, which are still done well, throughout the episodes but then – wham! – you get hit with an ending that’ll force a “HAH!” out of you, whether you actually think it’s funny or not. It’s not comparable to a Shyamalan twist or anything that drastic, but the endings almost feel tonally different from the rest of the piece. When you look back at the episode as a whole, everything still lines up and you’ll wonder why you were taken so aback, but in the moment it’ll feel like a playful punch to the arm. Maybe they’re meant, in a way, to evoke the abrupt end of the Romanovs themselves.

As for the new-era Romanovs? Those who claim to trace their lineage back to the last ruling dynasty of Russia? For the most part, they’re the wooooorst. Not that some won’t find redemption, but in these first two episodes you’ll find an assortment of abrasive upper-crust wannabes who somehow manage to simultaneously wallow and boast. They’re the centerpieces of these tragicomic tales, with some even attending cockeyed costume balls that are basically like eating at a Medieval Times. It’s a very thin tethering for an anthology, but it works to set up a diorama of dysfunction – one that can provide unique moments and service a stellar cast.

Weiner traverses the globe with these stories (the first taking place in Paris) and delivers some truly engaging, and deranged (at times), moments. You’ll never know what to expect with each new episode and The Romanoffs will never be a show you can easily explain to anyone. There’s a touch of audience contempt buried within that non-premise – but it’ll both swaddle you and surprise you.

The Verdict

Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner returns to TV with a new hard-to-peg anthology dramedy series about unfulfilled lives in turmoil; those who cling to their lineage as an identity; and darkly comedic scheming. It’s overlong in its execution, offering us movies instead of “episodes,” but the writing, directing, and cast are all top notch.


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