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The Missed Opportunities of ‘The Romanoffs’

Matthew Weiner’s ‘Mad Men’ follow-up is a perfectly watchable anthology of (90-minute) television episodes. But it tries a little too hard to escape its predecessor’s shadow.

Amazon/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The Golden Age of Television’s traditional Mount Rushmore—The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad—isn’t a perfect framework, but it’s the one we’ve got. The four shows were not dissimilar: to varying degrees, each centered on masculinity and operated within male-dominated genres like crime fiction. Each also saw its on-screen themes mirrored in an off-screen auteur who shared a demographic and often a temperament with his protagonist. The title of Brett Martin’s 2013 book—Difficult Men, a behind-the-scenes account of this quartet—is deliberately twofold, applying equally to Tony Soprano and his creator, David Chase. Even five years ago, the version of 21st century TV history Difficult Men espoused received some pushback, whether from forceful arguments on behalf of trivialized shows or broader accounts that incorporated traditional networks alongside cable outlets. Still, the “difficult man” legend looms large even in 2018, if in modified, qualified form. Its evolution can be traced through what its central figures have opted to do next.

Of the four most frequently cited foundational shows, Mad Men is the last to yield a follow-up. This would be The Romanoffs, an episodic anthology series debuting today on the original programming wing of Amazon. Its eight-episode season was overseen by Matthew Weiner, the long-suffering TV writer turned Sopranos producer turned near-deified creative force behind Mad Men. More than The Sopranos David Chase, The Wire’s David Simon, or Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan—or Deadwood’s David Milch, forever the fifth Beatle of this cluster—Weiner came to epitomize the exacting, demanding white male showrunner, for good and for ill. The culture’s growing ambivalence toward the archetype is neatly encapsulated in Weiner’s own reputation.

Back when Mad Men was still on the air, Weiner’s attention to detail became the stuff of legend: the rigorous period accuracy; the notorious spoiler lists sent out to critics; most of all, the dictatorial management style Weiner insisted was necessary to keep the show up to his lofty standards. (Weiner’s entry in the Difficult Men index says it all: “abrasive personality … autocratic showrunner style … credit for script rewriting .. .egoism and competitiveness.”) Then in November 2017, shortly after The New York Times kick-started the #MeToo movement by exposing the serial abuses of Harvey Weinstein, former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon, a one-time assistant who shared a writing Emmy with Weiner before being let go, said that Weiner had sexually harassed her, telling her “she owed it to him to let him see her naked” while the two were working late alone in 2008; Weiner has since said he does not recall the incident. But Gordon’s account is just one example of a dysfunctional workplace, a characterization that has been corroborated before and since by other colleagues of Weiner’s. “That was not an isolated incident,” Gordon recently told Vanity Fair. “Bullies with unchecked power create environments of fear.”

The Romanoffs was green-lit before Gordon came forward, and its costly ambition reflects a setting where Weiner’s return to television would be an unqualified triumph. (The production is also pre-Weinstein in a very literal sense, resulting from a partnership between Amazon and the Weinstein Company.) The premise is deliberately loose, with every episode including at least one character who believes themselves to be descended from the Russian royal family deposed by the revolution. Weiner takes every advantage of the freedoms afforded him by both Amazon’s deep pockets and his own concept. With a reported budget of $50 million, Weiner directed every episode, each of which runs to feature length. The stand-alone stories hopscotch in both location, from the streets of Paris to a palatial cruise ship, and tone, from light social comedy to Kafkaesque surrealism. Weiner even convinced Amazon to release every installment after the first two week by week, a first for a scripted show on a streaming service not owned by a coalition of broadcast networks.

The Romanoffs, in other words, is the work of a man with a blank check. Its format suggests its closest contemporaries are fellow anthologies like Black Mirror and Room 104 or, probably more to Weiner’s liking, classical series like Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone. But its most useful comparisons are how other antihero architects have chosen to use their freshly elevated prospects. David Chase, Weiner’s former boss, has largely pivoted away from television, beyond developing an HBO miniseries on which there’s been little reported movement since 2016. Instead, he’s pivoted to features like Not Fade Away and upcoming Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark. An aspiring filmmaker before The Sopranos, Chase appears to have held onto some of the prejudices against television he ironically helped to upend. (Weiner, too, has dabbled in extracurricular pursuits with both a feature and a novel, neither of which were well received.)

David Simon, meanwhile, has spent the decade since The Wire happy to replicate his own success. Treme, Show Me a Hero, and The Deuce are far from carbon copies of the Baltimore saga that established the erstwhile journalist as a television czar, but they share a consistent M.O., both predictable and reliable in everything from quality to theme. There is a rigorous focus on the institutions of American urban life; there are loosely connected ensembles of well-meaning actors with opposing interests expressed in dense, colloquial dialogue; there are regular collaborators, among them George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and William F. Zorzi. Simon’s oeuvre is neither flashy nor stupendously popular, but HBO seems content to keep financing these works of pop sociology, and Simon seems content to keep making them.

Compared to this steady output, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, feels like a much more significant break from their previous work. Saul shares a setting and many, many characters with Bad, yet the primary mechanism of its hero’s moral decay is precisely opposite. Bad used viewers’ deep-conditioned trust in protagonists against them, knowing viewers would hold out hope for Walter White’s soul until well past when they should. Saul understands that bait-and-switch is no longer possible, and while so much else on TV persists in turning out pale Bad imitations, Gilligan and Gould now use the inevitability of Jimmy McGill’s decline as Saul’s central driver of pathos. The two series are complementary in every sense of the word, one a direct response to the other.

Weiner’s latest, too, feels like a rebellion, albeit more formal than thematic. Mad Men is a staggering work of long-term character building, deriving as much of its power from cumulative, long-term change as it does from its elegantly constructed stand-alone episodes. Earlier this year, I spent some time revisiting Mad Men’s first few seasons and found myself struck by how much one’s appreciation of the show is amplified by knowing where it goes. There’s the duality of Don Draper’s fall and Peggy Olson’s rise, of course, but there are also smaller, less clearly telegraphed stories that contribute to the show’s depiction of a generational handoff. Pete and Trudy Campbell’s unlikely growth into a modern, confident marriage; Paul Kinsey’s wacky pivot to Star Trek scripts and Hare Krishna; Roger Sterling’s drift toward the counterculture—knowing all of their futures gives the show’s initial portrait of ’50s-holdover stuffiness an additional note of irony—and tragedy. Mad Men played a truly long game, and by the end of it, the audience felt they’d experienced a full decade of change with these characters because they had, slowly yet surely.

The Romanoffs takes this defining characteristic and immediately disposes of it. At least one character from the three episodes provided to critics seems fated to recur in future installments, though I’m forbidden from specifying who they are or who plays them. (The strict embargos, at least, have carried over into this new enterprise.) For the most part, however, The Romanoffs chapters are self-contained by design, with open-and-shut narratives that resolve themselves definitively. If the modern prestige television show is a novel, an analogy applied more frequently to Mad Men than perhaps any other series, then The Romanoffs is a collection of short stories.

Perhaps this is why The Romanoffs feels relatively insubstantial—a clever, competent compilation that shows little sign of adding up to anything more impactful than an entertaining diversion. The first episode, a social farce whose class divisions and romantic twists feel self-consciously pulled from a 19th-century comic novel, has a neatness that feels at odds with the nuance typically associated with more highbrow fiction. The second, centered on a fracturing marriage and updating suburban ennui for the present day, feels reverse-engineered from its dramatic conclusion, though a bravura sequence on a cruise ship has enough oddity and surprise to mitigate that slightly. The third episode is also the best, a sort of Clouds of Sils Maria redux starring Christina Hendricks and Isabelle Huppert. It’s the only story that stuck with me beyond an admiring nod. The Romanoffs won’t actively alienate you; Weiner’s dialogue and repertory players are too solid for that. It just won’t register as more than an exercise, either, a writer trying on genres mostly because he can. There’s little time to form a relationship with the characters, and so the characters largely stay on the page.

Comparing The Romanoffs to Mad Men would be less tempting if they didn’t seem to be getting at many of the same ideas. The manifestations of the Romanoff-descendant premise are deluded, self-important people whose entitlement is rooted in a fiction those around them no longer believe in—as fellow Pete Campbell aficionados know, already one of Weiner’s favorite personae. Every episode includes a character who could easily be read as a stand-in for Weiner himself: Aaron Eckhart’s searcher, fulfilling the middle-aged male fantasy of starting over in Paris with a young, beautiful girlfriend; Corey Stoll’s asshole, acting out his grievances in amusingly petty fashion; most intriguingly, Huppert’s tyrannical director. (Her episode might be The Romanoffs best yet because it explicitly engages with the figure of the insecure, uncompromising artiste, showing both introspection and self-awareness.) And The Romanoffs wouldn’t exist without Mad Men, where Weiner forged relationships with Romanoffs producers like Semi Chellas and Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, not to mention earned the esteem that got the Amazon show the green light. Even a conscious rejection of a past work still forms a conversation with it.

Given the choice among abandoning television, settling down within it, or accepting the challenge of separating oneself from one’s initial success, Weiner has opted for separation. Such distancing is an admirable response to universal acclaim, and valuing risk-taking over fan service is an instinct that can reap rewards. The Romanoffs nonetheless feels like an overcorrection, shackling itself with a handicap it can’t quite overcome. Yet the disappointment isn’t as crushing as “middling Mad Men successor” might suggest. In some ways, The Romanoffs is a relic of a bygone Golden Age. In others, it’s the product of a world that’s moved past so-called geniuses, where it’s acceptable for their output to be not gospel, but perfectly fine.