Identity. It’s the most powerful currency of the modern world. Celebrities are qualified by the number of people who recognise them. People fashion themselves as brands. Brands become Presidents. Power is decreed by heritage. And, in an age of sensationalised media, where people are increasingly defensive (or aggressive) about who they are and what they have or haven’t said or done, nations define themselves by the kind of people they don’t want to include. The Romanoffs, a series that trades in identity above all else, could therefore prove one of the most pertinent ideas to hit our TV screens this year – but positioning itself to be that doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
The show hails from Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, and it’s a natural extension from the writer’s iconic creation of Don Draper, an ad man who crafted himself an identity and sold it to all the people around him. Here, Weiner assembles an impressive, eclectic ensemble, as he tells the global story of different people who claim to be descendants of the Russian royal family, The Romanovs. That the series spells the name differently gives you a hint as to where the programme’s sensibilities lie; the series unfolds with a satirical wit, resulting in a parade of privilege that questions just how deluded each person’s belief in their own ancestry is.
The series is an anthology of eight separate stories, taking us from one country to the next. Beginning with a double-bill, we see The Romanoffs’ purported legacy unfold in both America and France. The Violet Hour is the stronger of the two, as it introduces us to a stately home in the middle of Paris – a fancy pad owned by the elderly Anushka (Marthe Keller).
Keller is visibly enjoying herself as the snooty lady, who’s as protective of her legacy as she is withering towards her son, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), who hasn’t provided her with a grandchild. So when he hires a new helper to look after her, Hajar (Ines Melab), the notion of a foreigner (a terrorist, as far as her bigoted views are concerned) entering her precious house is the final straw – she becomes ruder, and more stubborn, than ever. To say that this brittle exterior softens over the length of the story is no spoiler; our screens have been filled with such odd-couple life lessons for decades. It would be nice to say that Weiner finds a new twist on that formula, but that never really materialises; the final act sees things come together with a satisfying click, and a delicately amusing flourish, but there is, as they say, a lot of Shawshank before the Redemption.
That’s even more noticeable in The Royal We, an episode that sees Michael (Corey Stoll) and Shelly (Kerry Bishé) navigating a rut in their marriage. A cruise holiday on the horizon is meant to give them some quality time together, but Michael ends up on jury duty, so she goes it alone. What she witnesses is a gauche convention for Romanov pretenders, one that includes both exploitative displays and informative history lessons – but while there’s some insight to be gleaned into the kind of people that Weiner is writing about, that doesn’t help us understand Michael, an unlikeable figure whose motivations during his jury duty combine male wish fulfillment with something much darker.
All these actors are the kind of star names you’d push someone off a cliff to see, and a lot of The Romanoffs’ success stems from seeing these people in full flow – Bishé, of Halt and Catch Fire fame, is a survivor of a broken marriage with a winning knowledge of her own self-worth, one that echoes Ines Melab’s charming, forthright presence. Both contrast the empty, preening entitlement that defines the would-be descendants they brush up against. But the problem is that Weiner seems to be relying on the cast to do the heavy lifting; where Mad Men’s episodes were neatly formed chapters in a nation-defining odyssey, The Romanoffs’ 80-minute episodes feel flabby around the middle, with more padding than substance. Compare this to the carefully concise stories in Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror, and the difference is striking – both of these opening tales could be told in 45 minutes and benefit from sharper, blunter edges. Weiner’s dialogue flows elegantly, but it pours into a river that’s lacking a purposeful current.
The result is a sutably lavish affair – you can imagine The Romanoffs themselves very much enjoying the exquisite costume design, set decoration and the bold opening credits that follow the royal bloodline through to the present day. But it’s one that also feels hollow, in a way that recalls the titular character, but not in a way that feels intentional. With future episodes promising cast members such as Hugh Skinner and Christina Hendricks, there’s potential for a royal achievement here, but so far, these heirs to Mad Men’s crown haven’t quite got the right genes. The Romanoffs’ identity, all too aptly, still isn’t fully formed.
Episode 1 and 2 of The Romanoffs are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.