Amazon’s ‘The Romanoffs’ is overthrow of mediocrity

Chandler Gibson

Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” returns to TV this month on Amazon Video with his satirical dramedy series, “The Romanoffs.”

The show is an anthology of stand alone episodes, each of which feel like their own movie. The episodes’ characters, thus far played by an impressive cast like Aaron Eckhart and Corey Stoll, believe They are modern descendants of the Romanovs, the Russian royal family overthrown in the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

The first episode kicks off strong, set against the glitz and glamour of Paris. Interestingly, the show’s plots are not unlike an actual Russian literary work the audience might have read in senior English. Family strife, wealth, betrayal, the nature of murder and even a karmic twist are dei ex machina to move the plot forward into uncharted territory.

A wealthy Parisian aristocrat, Anushka, played by Marthe Keller, is rushed to the hospital, and her nephew, Greg, played by Aaron Eckhart, comes to check on her. She is a mean, bitter, racist French woman who loathes young people for apparently any reason, especially her Muslim nurse, Hajar, played by Ines Melab. She finds any excuse to remove Hajar from her case, but befriends her instead. It’s a metaphor for modern Europe.

The episode and character interactions are well-written, and especially a chilling scene when Anushka describes the humiliation Hajar must feel living in France, a country whose people eat croissants every day. Historically, France took the crescent from the Turkish flag and made it into a pastry after a Christian victory over the Ottomans at Tours in 1683, hence the idiomatic equivocation of victory with being eaten for breakfast. Hajar takes this ridicule in stride, saying she does not care much for history.

The only real issue with the episode is that no one has a last name. Greg, Anushka, Hajar and everyone else in the episode never speak their last name. Even when Anushka reveals she is a Romanov descendant, she never says “Romanov,” only “the Russian royal family.”

The second episode, starring Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishe as American suburbanites Michael and Shelly Romanoff, respectively, features another Russian literary trope: an unhappy marriage. They are scheduled to go on a genealogical cruise, when Michael finds himself on jury duty. In order to capitalize on his cringeworthy midlife crisis, he forces the jury to run late to try and seduce one of his fellow jurors, while recommending that his wife go on the cruise alone. From then on, the episode is bisected into two different stories that rarely cross paths.

Shelly Romanoff (Kerry Bishe) boards the ship, doubtful of her husband’s heritage, and meets a man, Ivan (Noah Wyle), who is also cruising alone. The two struggle with a should we or shouldn’t we decision because Shelly is married. Michael Romanoff, on the other hand, knows his intentions well, and seduces Michelle (Janet Montgomery). Michael’s infidelity and obsession make the episode more of a Hitchcockian thriller, with an unexpected use of the should we or shouldn’t we trope of indecision.

“The Romanoffs” is an overthrow of mediocrity, and a modern revitalization of the classic anthologies that previous generations enjoyed. With more episodes airing every Friday, the should we or shouldn’t we trope answers itself.