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The Romanoffs 1.1 "The Violet Hour" 

By Spencer Coile 

I vividly remember watching Mad Men for the first time during my junior year of college, struck by the way Matthew Weiner crafted a series that was cinematic and rich in detail, dialogue, and characters. Since its finale in 2015, I’ve been searching for a series that struck the same chord with me. Enter: The Romanoffs, the new Amazon Prime series from Matthew Weiner. Its premiere was a long time coming, with news, expansive cast announcements, and speculation circulating for years. Would Weiner capture lightning in a bottle again?

As it turns out, The Romanoffs is an anthology series, where each episode presents a new story about people who believe themselves to be descendants of the slaughtered Romanov family. Based off the first two episodes, it’ll be a globe-trotting series, bouncing across countries, and continents...

In its pilot episode, “The Violet Hour,” we are introduced to Greg (Aaron Eckhart), an American living in Paris who also takes care of his snobby elderly aunt, Anushka (Marthe Keller). Anushka takes great pride in her lineage, announcing herself to be a direct heir to the Romanovs. Her lavish Parisian apartment reflects her wealth and status, to the chagrin of Greg’s girlfriend Sophie, (Louise Bourgoin), who is waiting for the fateful day that Greg will inherit it...

Complicating matters is nursing student Hajar (Ines Melab), who is hired to take care of Anushka. Extremely proud and incredibly racist, Anushka is initially prickly saying “Take your bombs and go home. I need a caregiver and not a terrorist.” But “The Violet Hour” follows a very traditional trajectory – the racial tension subsides as Anushka and Hajar form a meaningful relationship, potentially thwarting Greg and Sophie’s plans to move into Anushka’s upscale apartment. 

The premise behind The Romanoffs is somewhat lost in “The Violet Hour.” The show's opening credits feature a stylistic slaughtering the family scored byTom Petty's "Refugee" and it slowly morphs into modern day. But aside from a quick conversation between Anushka and Hajar about Anushka’s background, the significance of the Romanov family to the series is easy to miss in the first episode.

The beauty of Mad Men was found in its attention to the minor, seemingly insignificant moments throughout each episode. Sometimes it wasn't until the end of the episode or even the season that we realized how everything clicked together seamlessly. And even then, rewatches were crucial, because there were so many details that might have been missed. In many ways, it feels as though Weiner is trying to make The Romanoffs a larger, even more culturally relevant text than Mad Men. But therein lies the issue. Mad Men meticulous details felt natural while The Romanoffs feels indulgent in comparison. There are truly beautiful moments sprinkled throughout “The Violet Hour,” but considering that 84-minute runtime, the episode runs out of steam well before we reach the anticlimactic conclusion – one that many will spot within the first 15 minutes.  

The performances in this first episode are compelling, particularly Keller and Melab, whose chemistry is electric if underexplored. But these characters needed more room to grow. As it is, they remain caricatures. They have motivations but little else. Bourgoin’s Sophie suffers the most from this. She's portrayed as nothing more than a shrill, gold-digging socialite – which sounds like a fun character on paper. But in the actual episode, her role falls flat because there is nothing else there. 

It’s very difficult, as a long-time Mad Men fan, to avoid comparing it to The Romanoffs. I absolutely do not want them to be the same show but, that said, Weiner demonstrated such precision and depth in the past, that I worry he’s losing sight of what made Mad Men such a worthwhile television experience. Despite an extensive running time, this story felt undercooked and the characters were sketches rather than portraits. 

Still, I remain optimistic for future episodes, especially with the exhaustive list of incredible actors popping up. Will Weiner stick the landing of this ambitious premise? 

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Reader Comments (9)

the trailer for this show made it look awful. I’ll hold off for now...

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

I have to say that I found this a slog. I cannot for the life of me figure out why the episodes are movie-length. You have to earn running times. It might have been special at 47-50 minutes like most TV dramas, but instead it feels indulgent and repetitious... basically if you're doing an anthology with no connection between episodes they need to be very punchy and short like, oh twilight zone, or amazing stories, or whatnot. This format hasn't been popular in a while (today's anthologies tend to be season length stories)

that said I thought the aunt and the caretaker were great and it was fun to hear Aaron Eckhart speak French.

October 20, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ah, Eckhart was a (Mormon) missionary in France/Switzerland back in his younger days. That makes sense now.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I really liked the third ep which has a sinister Hitchcock or Polanski vibe and which I think I could watch three or four times to try to unwind. I do wonder if there is more going on than meets the eye for the first ep, but yeah I too found it a slog. The direction is beautiful in all three episodes so far.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

One of the advantages television poses over films is that tv allows characters to develop over time, and viewers become attached to certain characters. Nowhere was this more apparent than Mad Men, where, given the exceptionally talented cast and beautifully plotted novelistic story, the characters felt like real people. I still think about them all the time.

Given his obvious talent for characterization and the strengths of the medium, I wonder why Weiner chose this episodic anthology structure. Nat is right, it really is out of fashion - even films have become serialized, and revivals of old shows have become popular on tv, because people want the comfort of familiarity in 2018. Maybe Weiner thought he was talented and influential enough to bring it back, but it seems seriously out of step with society as a whole and his strengths.

I liked the first episode more than the second, but I was seriously put off by the fact that both featured older attached men having affairs with younger women. If that's the entire series, count me out.

October 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I thought "The Violet Hour" was a much ado about nothing -- okay that sounded harsh. There are layers in this episode that may reveal themselves more fully after the 2nd or 3rd or more viewings (which I have yet to do), but from a highly subjective first impression, it did not capture me. It's not that the characters verged into being caricaturish as much as I just find them uninteresting. Not unpleasant, just uninteresting. Except for Ines Melab's Hajar who is the beating heart of this episode. Despite the long-ish running time, it would help to flesh out her relationship with Marthe Keller's Anushka. How the episode ended with majorly changes in the emotional and financial aspects, it has very little Romanoff connection except Anushka's pedigreed claims. I truly need to see this again as I cannot even write something interesting about it.

Maybe this episode will all come together when the eighth and last episode streams, but as a stand-alone episode and having seen it once, I didn't find it compelling enough.

"The Royal We" fares slightly better. But maybe there is discussion for that episode and I will reserve my judgment of it?

Now, the third episode "The House of Special Purpose" is in a different universe. It tells a twisted story in a landscape familiar to the ones found in the oeuvre of Lynch, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Chabrol. Hopefully this episode will be discussed separately here in TFE too? But I enjoyed the 3rd episode so far. I watched it twice since and kept rewinding certain scenes.

October 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

This show is completely bonkers but I'm loving it.

October 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJes V.

Saw the first two episodes. Wondered whether this is a bad joke. Everything goofy...plots, characters, situations, egos, etc. Just horrible, self absorbed TV. A waste of almost three hours. Obviously, Weiner is very impressed with himself after Mad Men and believes people will eat his leftover baloney sandwich. I’m not! Quite frankly, if the is a real Romanoff out there they should sue Weiner for spoiling their image in this silly nonsense.

October 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterWoody

So I'm watching Expectation, episode 4 of The Romanoffs. I really enjoyed episode 1 and think the premise of the anthology is quite good, as is the acting. My own expectations of this anthology series were pretty high, based on being a longtime fan of Mad Men, which I consider a great classic. And a pleasure to watch someone like John Slattery for instance, work. I'm not sure if Matthew Weiner is the sole writer of The Romanoffs, but I'm finding the dialogue, pacing and characters engaging too.
Episode 4 is set in a place dear to my heart... an idealized version of Manhattan. Which I used to live in and miss a lot. But I have to say, it's hard to feel empathy for the protagonist here... a woman who is wrestling with midlife issues... becoming a grandmother for the first time, she collides with her own angst at every turn. But instead of being engaged by her life and problems, I find myself getting kind of frustrated. I mean, look at her life! She and her husband reside in a beautiful home in the greatest city in the world. The husband is obviously successful. She (Amanda Pete) is a former hot babe, who still looks great. The husband is distinguished looking and attractive too. As far as age goes, they're only like, late 40s or early 50s. Although there are complications, they are still very much in love with each other. They have good friends and a beautiful daughter who's about to have her first child. Even the in-laws are really nice, solid people. The husband's best friend, with whom she had an affair 20 years ago, is not even a threat to their marriage. In fact, the husband has just graciously accepted the fact that his best friend is in truth, the father of his daughter. They have money! They take cabs anywhere they want to go, and their home is great. And they live comfortably in New York City! She, and they, are lucky beyond belief. She has every reason to feel as happy as anyone can get in this world.
So, My response to all this is.... What is the problem, lady? Lighten up, huh?

October 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLowend100

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