Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Matthew Weiner's 'The Romanoffs' a not so golden Amazon echo of TV's first golden age

It looks like Amazon, in funding Matthew Weiner’s “The Romanoffs,” tried to imitate the formula that Netflix struck gold with in 2012 when it gave $100 million without seeing a pilot to director David Fincher and producer/writer Beau Willimon and told then to go make something great.

Fincher and Willimon delivered “House of Cards,” which vaulted Netflix to the top of the premium streaming services in quality, buzz, subscriptions and stock prices.

While Weiner, a Baltimore native who became one of TV’s bigger auteur names with “Mad Men,” certainly appears to have had the same kind of free artistic rein as Fincher and Willimon, I am pretty sure “The Romanoffs” is not going to come anywhere near having the kind of cultural impact “House of Cards” had. In fact, based on the three 90-minute installments made available to critics, it is not going to come close.

I wonder if some viewers will even stick with all eight episodes of this anthology after seeing the first two, which arrive tomorrow on Amazon Prime. The remaining six will be released one at a time on successive Fridays, rather than all at once, as is the norm on premium streaming platforms.

In fairness, an anthology is a different genre than a drama series like “House of Cards,” but that’s not the reason I predict less success. The first two episodes had almost no depth, urgency or characters who felt more than one or two dimensions deep.

In large part, that is a matter of casting, with two of the three largest roles in the first episode, “The Violet Hour,” poorly cast with Aaron Eckhart and Marthe Keller.

The concept loosely linking the eight installments, which feature different casts and stories, is that some characters in each episode believe they are or pretend to be descendants of the Russian royal family whose imperial dynasty ended in a hail of Bolshevik bullets, bayonets and clubs in 1918.

“In the last 100 years, dozens have laid claim to the Romanov name,” Weiner is quoted as saying in an Amazon interview. “It’s a name you can adopt and there is an imagined status that comes with it. That’s why I spelled the title with the two F’s — an adopted, phony flavor, an opportunity for people to pretend to be related to them.”

In the first installment, Keller plays the Romanov descendant, Anuska, an elderly woman with aristocratic ways clinging to past glory in a grand Parisian apartment. She is all Chanel and Hermes.

Eckhart plays her American nephew, Greg, who came to Paris from Las Vegas and never left. His best hope for a future involves the possible inheritance of his aunt’s apartment.

The superior, tart, perfectly-coiffed Anuska should be the heartbeat of this episode, but she isn’t. Keller simply does not generate the kind of screen presence and power it takes to seize the screen and the viewer’s attention. At 74, Catherine Deneuve would have been perfect.

And don’t tell me she was out of Weiner’s league. He had the money to film on three continents, in seven countries with more than 200 actors, according to Amazon press materials. And he managed to get 65-year-old Isabelle Huppert, whose talent and stature is at least as large as Deneuve’s, in the third installment of this series. Huppert could have easily played the Anushka role, and I guarantee you she would have brought about 50 more shades of gray, white, black and blue to it.

But Keller’s performance is a knockout compared to Eckhart’s. I guess his appeal is supposed to be found in his iconic American visage — a face that suggests both strength and decency, or at least the lack of guile.

But I look at Eckhart and all I can think of is what a pale imitation he is of the late Sam Shepard. He not only fails to measure up in that heartland American look, it’s also that his performance suggests none of the intelligence and nuance that Shepard brought to the screen. Calling his performance one-dimensional is probably giving it twice the credit it deserves.

What saves the story is the arrival onscreen of Inés Melab as a young Muslim woman, Hajar, who is hired to be a caretaker to Anuska. She’s the one whose life you want to find out about. She’s the one who makes you care. And most of that is thanks to Melab’s engaging performance, not the script.

I have to note that some of the insults Anushka hurls at her Hajar seemed excessive. The points the insults were intended to make about Anushka could have been made with half the slurs that are sounded here. But then, the entire episode felt redundant and poorly edited.

Weiner’s the one to blame for that. He both wrote and directed the episode. At one key point, for example, he has Greg saying how great the “view” of Paris is at night. As the director, he should have been able to show us that with the camera, instead of also needing to have character tell us.

The second episode, “The Royal We,” offers a lot of Corey Stoll as Michael Romanoff, a man in a marriage that neither he nor his wife (Kerry Bishé) finds rewarding. I like Stoll, but even his strong presence throughout the 90 minutes was not enough to save the episode for me.

The problem here is not so much the casting — though it is not great — as it is the writing of the female characters played by Bishé and Janet Montgomery.

Weiner, who co-wrote the script Michael Goldbach, is outstanding at creating women as objects of desire. That was part of what made “Mad Men” feel like such a sexy show. But that point of view is all male gaze.

You will see the creation of desire done about as well as it can be done on TV in a courtroom scene here. You will also see it in a scene featuring Noah Wyle as a man traveling without his wife who introduces himself to a sunbathing Bishé on a cruise ship. The male desire is palpable.

But Weiner shows no ability in this episode to get inside the mind of his female characters or see the world through their eyes even for a second. And that’s a killer in this story about desire, sex, power, couples and what we often settle for instead of love.

So, is there anything to recommend “The Romanoffs,” you might ask.

Yes, but I can’t talk about it much, because it involves the third installment, which premieres Oct. 19, and it is under review embargo until Oct. 15.

But it stars Huppert and Christina Hendricks, and that’s two great reasons to give it a look. Furthermore, the script by Weiner and Mary Sweeney is far and away the richest and deepest of the three.

There is a lot of talk in the Amazon press kit from Weiner about the first golden age of television in the 1950s and ‘60s and the role anthologies played in that kind of quality programming.

I love some of those productions and still go back occasionally to look at them to remind myself of the promise the medium had in its earliest years before prime-time network TV became an assembly line of Hollywood-made sitcoms and cop dramas.

Sadly, I do not see much of that early era excellence in the first two episodes of “The Romanoffs.”

The first two installments of “The Romanoffs” premiere tomorrow on Amazon Prime.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
28°