'The Romanoffs' Feels Like A Short Story Collection Made For The Screen

Oct 12, 2018
Originally published on October 12, 2018 2:31 pm

The rollout plan for the new TV series The Romanoffs is unusual for Amazon — just as the drama series itself is an unusual experiment for the show's creator, Matthew Weiner.

Instead of making the entire season of The Romanoffs available at once, as it does with so many of its exclusive TV series, Amazon Prime Video presents only the first two episodes on the night the series premieres. Subsequent installments will be doled out weekly, as they are on broadcast TV. And unlike the past two drama series on which Weiner worked — his own Mad Men and David Chase's The Sopranos — this new series does not tell a continuing story.

Instead, The Romanoffs is an eight-episode anthology drama. But where such modern anthologies as FX's Fargo and HBO's True Detective tell a new story with a new cast every season, The Romanoffs is an anthology series in the purest sense.

Like The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or such live Golden Age drama anthologies as Playhouse 90 and Studio One, each episode of The Romanoffs stands alone. Mad Men was a novel, delivering one chapter a week. The Romanoffs is a collection of short stories, distributed on the same schedule.

Each episode looks at a different person who is, or claims to be, a descendant of the infamous Romanov clan — the czar and his family who were killed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1918.

The stories Weiner tells here, as writer or co-writer and as director of every episode, are set in the modern day but in various locations around the world. I've previewed only the first two episodes, which isn't enough to deliver a final verdict on the series as a whole. But some judgments, certainly, can be made.

Both of the opening, movie-length installments are sharply written, compellingly performed and confidently directed. They're beautifully photographed. And just like anthology shows ought to do, they go in unexpected directions, because none of these characters, or actors, have to show up for the next episode.

And there are some episode-specific quirks as well. The opening installment, The Violet Hour, is set in Paris and features a surprising amount of dialogue in French with English subtitles. And the second episode, The Royal We, manages to turn into some weird sort of mixture of 12 Angry Men and The Love Boat — and, improbably, features more cigarette smoking than Mad Men ever did.

The Romanoffs announces its intention to shake things up and go its own way immediately by starting with a polite instrumental opening theme that shifts suddenly into the defiant lyrics of Tom Petty's "Refugee."

The first story features Marthe Keller, who starred opposite Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man in the '70s, as Anushka, an elderly woman living in a Romanov family apartment in Paris. She's a pampered, secluded racist whose attitude and outbursts make it impossible for her to hang onto her hired help for long.

The second episode, with an entirely different cast of characters, is set in more familiar American ground. Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishé play a couple going through the motions in a stifling marriage. Before long, they embark on adventures that lead to unanticipated new possibilities — he on jury duty, she on a cruise ship.

But before that, Stoll's character, Michael, is stuck working in a strip mall at a test preparation storefront where his college-bound clients have some very lofty goals regarding their potential SAT scores and their college admission targets. One young man wants to earn a perfect score and attend Harvard, but Michael's advice is to settle for less. "The big secret is," he tells his ambitious young client, "nobody's happy."

Well, I'm happy, because The Romanoffs is another modern series, like Fargo and American Crime Story, that is bringing back the best elements of what the classic old anthology series used to provide.

I don't know quite what the rest of Weiner's new series has in store, except that its upcoming stars include Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Diane Lane and Paul Reiser. But I'm looking forward to it — in part because not knowing what to expect is more than half the fun.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Matt Weiner, the creator of the period drama series "Mad Men" hasn't produced a follow-up project for TV since that acclaimed drama series left the AMC network in 2015 - until now. Today on the Amazon Prime Video streaming service, Weiner unveils his newest effort, an eight-episode anthology drama series called "The Romanoffs."

The rollout plan for "The Romanoffs" is unusual for Amazon, just as the drama series itself is an unusual experience for the show's creator Matt Weiner. Instead of making the entire season of "The Romanoffs" available at once, as it does with so many of its exclusive TV series, Amazon Prime Video presents only the first two episodes today, as the series premieres. Subsequent installments will be doled out weekly, as they are on broadcast TV.

And unlike the past two drama series on which Weiner worked, his own "Mad Men" and David Chase's "The Sopranos," this new series does not tell a continuing story. It's an eight-episode anthology drama. But where such modern anthologies as FX's "Fargo" and HBO's "True Detective" tell a new story with a new cast every season, "The Romanoffs" is an anthology series in the purest sense. Like "The Twilight Zone" or "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" or such live golden-age drama anthologies as "Playhouse 90" and "Studio One," each episode of "The Romanoffs" stands alone. "Mad Men" was a novel delivering one chapter a week. "The Romanoffs" is a collection of short stories distributed on the same schedule.

Each episode looks at a different person who is or claims to be a descendant of the infamous Romanov clan, the Tsar and his family who were killed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1918. The stories Weiner tells here, as writer or co-writer and as director of every episode, are set in the modern day but in various locations around the world. I've previewed only the first two episodes, which isn't enough to deliver a final verdict on the series as a whole. But some judgments certainly can be made. Both of the opening movie-length installments are sharply written, compellingly performed and confidently directed. They're beautifully photographed. And just like anthology shows ought to do, they go in unexpected directions because none of these characters or actors have to show up for the next episode. And there are some episode-specific quirks, as well. The opening installment, "The Violet Hour," is set in Paris and features a surprising amount of dialogue in French with English subtitles.

And the second episode, "The Royal We," manages to turn into some weird sort of mixture of "12 Angry Men" and "The Love Boat" and, improbably, features more cigarette smoking than "Mad Men" ever did. "The Romanoffs" announces its intention to shake things up and go its own way immediately by starting with a polite instrumental opening theme that shifts suddenly into the defiant lyrics of Tom Petty's "Refugee."

The first story features Marthe Keller, who starred opposite Dustin Hoffman in "Marathon Man" back in the '70s, as Anushka, an elderly woman living in a Romanoff family apartment in Paris. She's a pampered, secluded racist, whose attitude and outbursts make it impossible for her to hang on to her hired help for long, as her nephew Greg, played by Aaron Eckhart, points out when she phones him to object to the newest housekeeper he sends as a replacement - a young, Muslim woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ROMANOFFS")

AARON ECKHART: (As Greg, speaking French).

MARTHE KELLER: (As Anushka, speaking French).

ECKHART: (As Greg) What are you talking about?

KELLER: (As Anushka) There's been a mistake.

(Speaking French).

ECKHART: (As Greg, speaking French).

KELLER: (As Anushka) I need a caregiver and not a terrorist.

ECKHART: (As Greg) They emailed me her references. She's educated. She's studying to be a nurse. She knows CPR, first aid.

KELLER: (As Anushka) You know about this?

ECKHART: (As Greg) So you want the other one back?

KELLER: (As Anushka) The whore? Please, I'm so afraid. Stay with me on the phone.

ECKHART: (As Greg) What do you want me to do? You've been through everybody else there. She's the best caregiver they have. And you are, by far, the worst client.

BIANCULLI: The second episode, with an entirely different cast of characters, is set in more familiar, American ground. Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishe play a couple going through the motions in a stifling marriage. Before long, they embark on adventures that lead to unanticipated new possibilities - he, on jury duty, she, on a cruise ship. But before that, he's stuck working in a strip mall at a test preparation storefront where his college-bound clients have some very lofty goals regarding their potential SAT scores and their college admission targets.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ROMANOFFS")

BRAEDEN LEMASTERS: (As Andrew) I need a 1,600. I want to go to Harvard.

COREY STOLL: (As Michael) What would you say if I told you there might be other options that are better for you?

LEMASTERS: (As Andrew) I would say I want my money back because you have a guaranteed satisfaction policy.

STOLL: (As Michael) OK. So can you tell me why you want to go to Harvard?

LEMASTERS: (As Andrew) So I can do whatever I want instead of staying here forever and getting a [expletive] job and being a loser.

STOLL: (As Michael) Because people who stay here are losers.

LEMASTERS: (As Andrew) Well, I don't know. You help people get into Harvard. That's pretty cool.

STOLL: (As Michael) I can give you your money back right now because wanting something and getting it are two very different things.

LEMASTERS: (As Andrew) Not if you go to Harvard.

STOLL: (As Michael) Keep saying Harvard, Andrew. It's not going to make it happen. You have to accept the reality and try to be happy with whatever you get.

LEMASTERS: (As Andrew) Yale?

STOLL: (As Michael) You're not listening, Andrew. The big secret is nobody's happy.

BIANCULLI: Well, I'm happy because "The Romanoffs" is another modern series, like "Fargo" and "American Crime Story," that is bringing back the best elements of what the classic, old anthology series used to provide. I don't know quite what the rest of Matt Weiner's new series has in store, except that its upcoming stars include Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Diane Lane and Paul Reiser. But I'm looking forward to it, in part because not knowing what to expect is more than half the fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHOEBE ROBINSON: What up, home slices of 2 Dope Queens? It's your girl Pheebs (ph) here.

BIANCULLI: Phoebe Robinson, stand-up comedian, writer, actress, co-creator and co-host of the podcast and TV show "2 Dope Queens" and co-host of the podcast Sooo Many White Guys. She has a new book titled "Everything's Trash, But It's Okay." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELI DEGIBRI'S "DIG DIS")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELI DEGIBRI'S "DIG DIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.