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Big Budgets, Small Victories: The State of Amazon TV in 2018

Despite some minor successes like ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ and ‘Homecoming,’ big-budget misses like ‘The Romanoffs’ loom large for the streaming service, which is still looking for a culture-dominating flagship show

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Did you stick with The Romanoffs long enough to get to that episode? The queasy and befuddling #MeToo parable whose failure to generate much think-piece heat suggests that very few people stuck with The Romanoffs for that long?

The eight-part and seemingly 400-hour Amazon anthology series had topped Most Anticipated lists for months, if not years, when it finally debuted its first two installments in October, thanks to a bulletproof pedigree (courtesy creator and sole director Matthew Weiner, back to disrupt the Peak TV landscape his Mad Men helped create) and a bonkers $70 million budget. The concept was highest-possible-concept (each standalone episode would involve, however obliquely, the titular cursed Russian royal family), the settings were luscious (Paris! Mexico City! Hong Kong! Diane Lane’s kitchen!), the interiors reliably divine. (Seriously, I gasped three separate times at Diane Lane’s kitchen.) Amazon’s kingmaking, culture-dominating flagship show, we told ourselves, had arrived at last.

Those first two Romanoffs episodes also ran nearly 90 minutes apiece; past that debut, Weiner even bucked binge-watching convention by insisting on doling out new installments week by week, yet another opulent flex further indicating Quality and Seriousness. True, he’d spent much of the show’s press tour answering uncomfortable questions about his tyrannical reputation, including an account of sexual harassment made by a Mad Men staff writer. But this, perversely, might’ve only heightened anticipation for The Romanoffs, raising the tantalizing question of how, or if, Weiner would respond via the show itself, and how the show’s reliably thorny male-female power dynamics might be effective. Appointment television was back. And so it was that the weekend The Romanoffs premiered, all anybody could talk about was … Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Streaming services are not big on public data; in the absence of hard viewer numbers or any real equivalent to old-school network ratings, we’re left analyzing Google Trends, IMDb reviews, Twitter chatter, and, in the case of Netflix’s run of presumed-blockbuster romantic comedies, the young actors’ subsequent surge in Instagram followers. But by those metrics, Hill House was a smash hit, and The Romanoffs was a bust, somehow both bloated and thin, each new chapter further clogging up our queues but commanding little of our ever-divided attention. The actual Romanoffs conceit made for a meager through line — a few times, one of the characters had written a book about them, and that was that — and any one episode’s pace inevitably dragged, a slow-motion somnolence that ended with either an opulent shrug or some cheap fairy-tale twist, whether that be an abrupt profession of love or an even more abrupt attempted (or actual) murder.

Maybe everybody watched The Romanoffs, religiously, and just nobody much talked about it. But Amazon needs to get people talking. And by the time the show got around to Episode 5, “Bright and High Circle,” which involves both Diane Lane’s kitchen and the slow-motion fallout of vague sexual-misconduct accusations levied against a beloved family friend, it was quite obvious that people weren’t talking near enough. Since Transparent debuted in 2014, Amazon has been a noisy Peak TV player, but not yet a consistently successful one, despite lavish budgets and the Evil Empire parent company’s uneasy ubiquity overall. Netflix is still eating everyone’s lunch and colonizing everyone’s brains. This year the prestige factory Jeff Bezos built did a little to change that, but not nearly enough.

In 2018, Amazon brought us John Krasinski as the action-hero star of Jack Ryan, the service’s only series I saw promoted during an NFL halftime show. It brought us the low-key surrealist comedy Forever, starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, which featured my single favorite TV episode of the year but was hamstrung, here deep in the too-much-TV era, by the fact that you were supposed to go into it knowing as little as possible. It brought us the eerie thriller Homecoming, helmed by Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts, an unqualified win that nonetheless couldn’t hope to reach, say, Stranger Things levels of prominence and esteem. It brought us The Romanoffs, not a disaster but nowhere near the cornerstone Amazon desired. And most recently, it brought us Season 2 of the zippy ’50s-comedienne farce The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is quite enjoyable despite feeling like you’re listening to a podcast at 2x speed, and has garnered enough Emmy love and inspired enough polarizing chatter that it’s currently Amazon’s cornerstone show by default.

Streaming services don’t really need concrete artistic identities anymore, if they ever did: Netflix has monopolized both TV and, increasingly, movies by emphasizing quantity over quality, or at least quantity over coherence. But Amazon is still taking swings big and brazen enough to get plenty of attention, but without connecting enough to get proportionate results. Its qualified success is still overshadowed by its unsightly thirst. Flop sweat is an integral part of the brand.

Dig deep enough into the service and you’ll find some of the best and weirdest television 2018 had to offer. (Even Season 2 of the black-comedy spy caper Patriot has its champions.) But at this point, given Amazon’s taste for budget-busting hoopla, it shouldn’t take quite this much digging.

The first episode of The Romanoffs is set mostly in a lavish Parisian apartment imbued with more loving detail than any of the people wandering through it, including Inès Melab as a noble Muslim caregiver whose character arc bends abruptly, at what literally feels like the 11th hour, toward Disney-princess fantasy. The eighth and final episode spans decades and continents, with some striking moments (a lovelorn Hugh Skinner does an agonized karaoke rendition of the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame”) but a convoluted flashback-within-a-flashback structure and the disquieting dual instincts to both humanize and sensationalize Skinner’s very complex character. It’s a lot. Somewhere in between, you get Jay R. Ferguson and Kathryn Hahn in a Russian-adoption drama overshadowed by Hahn’s recent infertility-themed Netflix movie, Private Life, and Christina Hendricks in a spooky backstage campfire tale too lackadaisical to be shocking, and a deceitful Amanda Peet moping around Manhattan in an episode whose best quality is that it’s only an hour long.

But the show either peaks or bottoms out, as an object of wayward fascination, with “Bright and High Circle,” which stars Lane as a monied Russian literature professor (nodding to the theme) troubled by vague rumors that her sons’ oddball-genius piano teacher, played by Andrew Rannells, has been accused of some sort of inappropriate behavior. Specifics are tough to come by, by design. The sets are to die for — “It’s like Versailles threw up in here,” Rannells cracks about someone else’s kitchen. And you also get The Romanoffs’ single funniest moment, when a troubled Lane blows off some steam at the opera.

The Romanoffs
Amazon

But the #MeToo overtones of the plot, as many a baffled recapper pointed out, are awfully unsettling given Weiner’s own recent history, especially when Ron Livingston, as Lane’s husband, subjects his kids to an uncomfortable lecture about not believing everything you hear:

When you accuse somebody of something, whether they did it or not, you make everybody look at them differently. Now, bearing false witness is the worst crime that you can commit. Otherwise anyone could say anything. About anybody. And just saying it ruins their life. No matter what they did. Does that seem fair? It’s not fair.

The story’s actual conclusion, which involves Livingston rambling through a bizarre anecdote about the disputed gender of his childhood friend Alan, is marginally more nuanced, but it’s mostly just more confusing. Lane’s final bewildered expression doubles as the viewer’s. Had a show with Mad Men’s prominence been this explicit on this topic with this much of a direct nod to Weiner’s own reputation, it would’ve been a code-black hot-take situation. As it stands, it’s awkward provocation without enough dedicated viewers to provoke.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a far sunnier and more assured affair, with a lot of awards-show love and the sort of anecdotal internet buzz that makes a streaming show seem like a hit. It seems better equipped, certainly, to both delight and antagonize a far larger audience, whether you regard Mrs. Maisel herself as a plucky, empowering heroine or dismiss the show’s universe as a smug upper-crust pipe dream that treats every other female character with contempt for not being as perfect and lovable as Mrs. Maisel herself. It, too, is a lot, but with a far less reckless sense of its own self-importance.

For a violently peppy show with enough rapid-fire zing that it often feels like a live-action Minions movie overdubbed into English, Season 2 dragged the way second seasons often do, kicking off with a leisurely two-episode Paris vacation that soon leads to a three-episode Catskills vacation. Mrs. Maisel doesn’t know what she wants, and neither does the show, and 10 episodes is between two and five episodes too many. The first scene in that Catskills cottage goes nowhere in particular at incredible speed, a technical marvel with no cuts and no particular purpose other than to underscore the show’s own theatrical zaniness. It’s a hot-fudge sundae; it’s an ice-cream headache.

But Maisel is a shockingly soothing binge watch despite its machine-gun patter, which only makes its very rare slow and elegant moments sing. The part where Mrs. Maisel charms a drunk painter who literally tells her she can’t have it all is meant to be the big emotional climax, but I keep returning to the scene where her new paramour drives her from the Catskills back to Manhattan in a shiny convertible, the sun bright, the colors unfathomably rich, the traffic nonexistent, and Mrs. Maisel herself uncharacteristically silent, lulled to sleep by talk radio. Soon she’s awake and riffing again, but for a few seconds, it’s a legitimately delightful victory for some goddamn peace and quiet.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Amazon

The argument against Mrs. Maisel is that for all its breathless verbiage, the hats speak more emphatically than the people wearing them, and the NYC-as-CandyLand sets dwarf the fantastically attired extras twirling through them. Indeed, if Amazon shows have any kind of unifying aesthetic, it’s Interior Design Crushing the Human Spirit, whether it’s the various apartments that serve as the true stars of The Romanoffs or the maze-like office building that entraps Julia Roberts in Homecoming. With its aspect-ratio trickery and dizzying overhead shots and painstaking ’70s-film-score escapades and general air of Hitchcockian auteurist menace, Homecoming is dehumanizing without dulling the personalities of the characters being dehumanized, the plot disorienting but never incomprehensible. The episodes are short. The mystery’s resolution is satisfying. Roberts’s natural mega-charisma is nicely underplayed, Bobby Cannavale’s is nicely overplayed, and breakout star Stephan James somehow out-charms them both. The presence of an old-guard movie star aside, the show is a home run that doesn’t feel like a typical Amazon-style overburdened home run swing. There is no flop sweat; the only sweat to speak of, for a change, is yours.

If you’re looking for a fake-deep action romp to binge entirely during NFL halftime shows, Jack Ryan is indeed the show for you, with John Krasinski making the scrunchy-hunk faces you know he’s going to make before he shoots the terrorists you know he’s going to shoot. The show’s War on Terrorism politics are wildly unsettling if you’re not inured to the rah-rah Jack Ryan universe, but relatively enlightened if you are — the bad guys are drawn with far more depth than usual, at least, and various refugee camps, sketched out in grim close-up detail but also abstracted via a nauseating drone’s-eye sweep, are effectively dehumanizing in their own way. A brief, bizarre subplot involving John Magaro as a shattered drone pilot adrift in Las Vegas is all the more effective given the standard macho-man swagger that surrounds it, with our man Krasinski writing the reports and connecting the dots and getting the girl and kicking some ass. A whole TV show about the drone guy would be bleary overkill. But in context, as an unnerving disruptor, it elevates material you’re maybe not eager to see elevated.

Which leaves Forever, starring Armisen and Rudolph as an awkward-cute married couple who — well, here’s the problem. It’s better if you go in knowing nothing, but it’s better if you go in knowing nothing is a crap way to sell a TV show in a year that featured, like, 6,000 new TV shows. Forever’s September premiere was far overshadowed, via those same internet-eyeball intangibles, by Netflix’s unveiling of BoJack Horseman Season 5, which is not a fair fight, but Amazon could scarcely afford to pick a less-fair fight than usual. The natural off-kilter charm of Armisen and especially Rudolph aside, Forever also takes awhile to get going, but it peaks — and, indeed, television in 2018 as a whole arguably peaks — with the sixth episode, which, save a quick and by that point meaningless Rudolph cameo at the end, doesn’t feature either star at all.

Forever
Amazon

It stars Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell as flirting realtors. I am, once again, hesitant to say more in an era when a hesitance to say more is the kiss of death for even a monolith of Amazon’s size. There is much relaxed and uncommonly winsome banter. There are time jumps that deliver one gut punch after another. And there is more careful and vivid characterization — more humanization — than any Romanoffs episode manages in six times the length, or even a quite successful and likable show like Maisel bothers with over the course of two full seasons.

The episode’s relationship to the larger plot of Forever is negligible, and in fact, as eerie and agreeable as the full show can be, it renders the rest of Forever negligible entirely. Some Amazon shows in 2018 did fine. Some didn’t get enough attention. Some got a little attention, which was still too much. Out of all of it, these 35 minutes are what I can wholeheartedly recommend, blown context and a relative lack of publicity be damned. This small victory will likely not satisfy Amazon, but Amazon’s attempts to satisfy Amazon didn’t all work out so hot this year. Paradoxically, its smaller pleasures are still its best.

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