Amazon’s The Romanoffs, an anthology series co-written and directed by Matthew Weiner, is ambitious but disappointingly inconsistent. Its eight nearly feature-length episodes hang together as a loose concept, each one focusing on a character (or characters), often in different parts of the globe, who believe themselves to be descendants of Russia’s Romanov dynasty. While the show’s characters have differing grasps of their family history, with some clinging to royal blood as a source of pride and others merely considering their potential lineage a curiosity, Weiner bestows each of his protagonists with a toxic sense of entitlement. The series is unconcerned with whether their egos are born of coincidence or DNA; Weiner simply seems to relish the opportunity to investigate the minds of difficult people, and the results aren’t always enlightening or very compelling.
In the first episode, “The Violet Hour,” the elderly Anushka (Marthe Keller) lords bitterly over her gorgeous Paris apartment—alone except for her nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), who eagerly awaits his inheritance. Anushka is a cruel xenophobe who relentlessly insults her new Muslim caretaker, Hajar (Ines Melab). While Weiner writes a not-so-surprising twist into their relationship, the episode’s conclusion does little to cushion the alienating effect of watching the irredeemable Anushka sneer for nearly 80 minutes.
Hajar rarely demurs throughout “The Violet Hour,” maintaining a positively warm disposition. She speaks about her dreams and faith, yet the episode is more drawn to Anushka’s shallow redemption, and to Greg’s coveting of the family’s estate. Hajar’s one-note role, with her seeming to exist solely to forgive her abusive charge, betrays the larger narrative problem within The Romanoffs: The royal descendants occupy too much storytelling space in each episode, despite rarely being the most interesting or nuanced characters.
In “The Royal We,” Michael Romanoff (Corey Stoll) is a married Midwestern man with depression informed by a non-specific yearning. He feels like he’s owed something but doesn’t know what. His eventual epiphany, that he’s living in an unhappy marriage, is hardly earth-shattering, and while this portrayal of suburban ennui is far from original, the depressingly generic American setting of “The Royal We,” contrasted with the lush images of Paris in “The Violet Hour,” illustrates the variable strengths of The Romanoffs: its ambitiously rendered production design. Striking imagery abounds, from Anushka’s breathtaking apartment, which is worth coveting, to the drab business parks and chain restaurants that highlight Michael’s melancholy.
These settings and others are the backdrops to nuanced performances (Stoll’s turn as an unlikable man—thrashing against his pleasant, if unremarkable, life—is darkly humorous), but they’re often stifled by the characters’ broadly sketched motivations. Considering their bloated running times, it’s surprising how little substance there is to the three episodes made available to press ahead of the show’s premiere. For one, Michael’s connection to his royal history, and thus to Anushka, is little more than a convenient construction: Their shared alwfulness might be mere coincidence, and appears of interest to Weiner only as a way of stringing together his tales of off-putting egoists.
The third episode, “House of Special Purpose,” is the most enjoyably off-kilter. Starring Christina Hendricks and Isabelle Huppert, it centers on a troubled European television production in Austria, and presents a bizarre mind game that veers between unsettling, comic, and truly horrifying. It’s surprising that Weiner opted to slate it behind two comparatively mundane installments, one a mawkish story of tolerance and the other an overdrawn snapshot of marital trouble. Yet “House of Special Purpose” suggests that The Romanoffs might eventually be worthy of its high-minded conceit. But all three episodes too often suggest that Wiener was granted a budget and cast worthy of royalty for an idea he believes to be more compelling than it actually is.