Is Matthew Weiner's series of anthologies, The Romanoffs, as good as the first show he created, Mad Men? In a word, no.
Is it almost as good in a different way? Not really.
Is it good at all? Of course, but more in light and discreet pieces than in the general scheme, which follows the contemporary characters who believe, or affirm, that they descend from the family of the murdered Russian Tsar Nicholas II. With the exception of that tenuous link, each of the eight episodes presents different stories, settings and characters.
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The concept is rich in possibilities to explore class, identity, family history and the persistent obsession of the 21st century with royalty. But Weiner just looks at those issues. Instead, discover amazing places (the series was shot in seven countries in Europe, North America and Asia) and sends characters as flat as cardboard cutouts that crawl around them.
The supposedly intelligent final turn of the second episode is simply implausible
The strongest echo of Mad Men comes in the opening credits. The camera slides through the rooms of a Russian palace, passing through ancestral ancestral portraits. The Tsar and his family enter another room and, suddenly, Tom Petty's refugee breaks into the soundtrack. The Bolshevik soldiers begin to shoot and the romanoffs become bloody corpses on the ground. Despite being different from Mad Men, the sequence shares its dynamism.
Nothing else in the first two episodes is close to the visceral impulse of the opening. The first episode, The Violet Hour, takes place in Paris. Taking advantage of the beautiful side streets, the walks along the Seine and the glorious changes of light, it has the entertaining and escapist feeling of a travel show.
With convincing fierceness, Marthe Keller plays Anastasia Le Charnay, a great lady who lives in a sumptuous apartment, where a Russian icon and a giant Fabergé egg sit on a shelf. His American nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and his ruthless girlfriend plan to inherit the place, the sooner the better. Extraordinarily proud of her Romanoff heritage, the aunt is also a racist who responds to the arrival of her new Muslim caretaker, Hajar, by saying, "Take your bombs and go home."
The backdrop is more fun and revealing than the main plot.
Inès Melab is wonderfully nuanced and enigmatic as Hajar. All the actors do what they can, but Weiner, who directed each episode, simply outlines the pain, greed, duplicity, and ethnic identity of the characters, while moving towards a final and easy plot. It's the kind of short story ending and curved that a short film could get away with. But this episode is almost 90 minutes long, enough time for the characters to develop.
The second episode, The Royal We, does very little with the irony of its title. Corey Stoll plays Michael Romanoff and Kerry Bishé is his wife, Shelly. They are a middle-class American couple that we see for the first time in that cliché location, the office of a marriage counselor. Michael takes advantage of the jury duty to have an affair with another juror, while Shelly goes on a cruise in which she flirts with a Romanoff by marriage, Ivan (Noah Wyle). There is a sad commotion on the subject that nobody is really happy. It's a shame that Michael and Shelly actually claim that, bluntly, at different times. It is impossible to feel sorry for Michael, who has the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old, or Shelly, who seems resigned to a mediocre life. And the supposedly intelligent final turn of this episode is simply implausible.
The backdrop is more fun and revealing than the main plot. Shelly's cruise includes a Romanoff descendants convention, whose grand dance is a kitsch comedy for everyone, except dinner guests. In tiaras and monocles, they cosplayen their inheritance as if they expected Nicolás and Alexandra to ignore. The dinner includes a slapstick show in which the family of the last Zar, along with Rasputin, are played by actors with dwarfism. Only Shelly and Ivan recognize the parade for the offensive and amazing show that it is. I wish Weiner had dedicated more time to the deceived Romanoffs. Or maybe it will. Only three episodes were sent to the critics, so who knows?
In his Mad Men days, Weiner was famous for controlling information about future episodes, and that has not changed. Of those three first quotas, the third is seized and can not be reviewed now, which seems tremendously counterproductive. If that episode, in which Isabelle Huppert appears as director of a Romanoffs miniseries and Christina Hendricks of Mad Men as an actress of the Tsarina, turns out to be amazing, possibly supernatural and more intriguing than the others, well, it would not. Do not be allowed to say.
It is understandable that the creator of a series as culturally significant as Mad Men, which is probably his defining achievement, wants to move forward with a completely new template. It is incomprehensible that The Romanoffs is so self-indulgent and deviant.
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