For “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner’s new series “The Romanoffs,” Amazon Prime has opted to break with its usual distribution model of releasing a full season all at once.
Instead, the first two episodes of the eight-episode first season premiered on Friday, with a new one scheduled to come out each Friday after that. In other words, it’s basically like how “Mad Men” and every other show on television is released.
But if the distribution schedule is familiar, nothing else about Weiner’s flawed but fascinating series is. First of all, each episode runs a whopping 85 minutes. Second, each episode is a different, self-contained story with new characters. It’s an anthology format that we’ve seen before in sci-fi shows like “Black Mirror” and “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” but Joe Swanberg’s Netflix show “Easy” is the only other character-based comedy-drama I can think of that uses it.
The thread that ties the episodes together (and it’s a slim one) is that each one features characters who are descended from the Romanoffs, the Russian royal family who were put before the firing squad during the Russian Revolution.
In the first episode, “The Violet Hour,” a wealthy French woman named Anushka (Marthe Keller) claims to be a direct descendant, living in a magnificent Parisian apartment filled with Faberge eggs and other treasures. We later learn that the treasures are fake, replacements for what the Nazis stole from the family during World War II.
Anushka may be high class, but she’s also highly unpleasant, a virulent racist who bemoans the immigration that she sees as ruining France. Her American nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and his girlfriend Sophie (Louise Borgnion) politely keep tabs on her, basically waiting for her to die so they can seize the apartment.
Perhaps unconsciously hoping to make Anushka’ s blood pressure rise, Greg and Sophie hire a Muslim woman named Hajar (Ines Melab) to be her live-in caregiver. Anushka verbally berates the poor woman, but eventually starts to find some common ground with her. Their friendship threatens to upset Greg and Sophie’s long-held plans to get the apartment.
In the second episode, “The Royal We,” Corey Stoll plays a sad-sack middle-aged man Michael who feels a strange resentment toward his perfectly nice wife Shelley (Kerry Bishe). When he’s tapped for jury duty on an open-and-shut murder case, Michael decides to be the lone holdout on the jury so he can spend more time with a fellow juror, the enigmatic Michelle (Janet Montgomery). Meanwhile, Shelley goes on a solo cruise and flirts with a fellow passenger named Ivan (Noah Wyle).
One thing about Weiner’s writing is that he clearly picks winners and losers among his characters. We’re meant to scoff at Michael’s pathetic schemes and root for Shelley to rid herself of this drip. Similarly in “The Violet Hour,” Greg seems like a decent guy caught in a bad situation, while Sophie is painted as greedy and manipulative.
“Mad Men” had its share of unlikable characters, but over the course of the show we learned more about them and, if not come to like them, at least could empathize with them. Even that irritating Pete Campbell. But 80 minutes isn’t enough time to get to know these people, and so at the end of each episode, we feel the same way about them as we did when we started.
That lack of character development is the biggest problem with “The Romanoffs,” shortchanging Weiner’s gift for creating complex and interesting people. The first two episodes are well-acted and directed, and clearly have high production values. I’m curious to see more, especially since “Mad Men” alums John Slattery and Christina Hendricks will star in future episodes. But so far, the show somehow manages to feel frustratingly slow and rushed at the same time.
Also on streaming: The second season of “Making A Murderer” returns on Friday, delving into the events that happened after the first series premiered, raising doubts into the convictions of Steven Avery and Brandon Dassey in the murder of Teresa Halbach.
The Welsh crime drama “Bang” premiered on Monday on Acorn, following such acclaimed series from Wales as “Keeping Faith” and “Hidden.” The eight-episode series follows an ambitious police officer investigating a local crime spree — committed by her brother.