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'The Romanoffs' review: Anthology with mixed results from the creator of 'Mad Men'

Kerry Bishé stars in Amazon Studios' "The Romanoffs,"

Kerry Bishé stars in Amazon Studios' "The Romanoffs," an anthology series about people who believe they're royals.  Photo Credit: Amazon Studios / Jan Thijs

THE SERIES "The Romanoffs"

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This anthology series from Matthew Weiner (his first TV series since "Mad Men") is based on fictional stories about descendants of the Russian royal lineage, the Romanovs — spelled here "Romanoff," perhaps to widen that fictional remove. The first episode Friday, "The Violet Hour," is set in Paris — also largely spoken in French, with subtitles — and is about Anushka (Marthe Keller), a widow with distant Romanoff ties, cared for by her American nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart). He hires a Muslim housekeeper, Hajar (Inès Melab), to cook for her and clean her apartment. His ill-tempered aunt does not approve. 

In the second part, "The Royal We," Michael Romanoff  (Corey Stoll) and wife Shelly (Kerry Bishé) are having marital difficulties when he gets called for jury duty, where he meets the alluring Michelle (Janet Montgomery). Shelly, meanwhile, goes on a cruise by herself, where she meets the alluring Ivan (Noah Wyle).  

MY SAY On July 17, 1918, 11 members of the royal family that had ruled Russia for 300 years were lined up and shot by the Bolsheviks. In fact, the Romanov line did not end there. By 1920, some 35 members of the extended Romanov family had survived, and many (or most? accounts differ) managed to get out of Russia. Thousands (or hundreds? accounts differ) of their descendants are alive today.

All of which is interesting, but why base an anthology series on some of their fictional counterparts? Because as "Mad Men" fans already know, they would seem to embrace any number of Matthew Weiner obsessions — how the past informs the present; how humans seek meaning where there is none; how people embroider their personal histories to elevate themselves or hide from themselves.  

Don Draper, anyone?

And with something so inescapably exotic and tragic as the Romanov history, there must be a lot of stories, even fictional ones. With "The Romanoffs" as proof, there are, but like any anthology series, you also have to take the good with the bad. Friday's two-part launch manages both extremes. 

"The Violet Hour" is transgressive to the extent that it's really a period piece set in present-day Paris, with the sort of screwball romantic payoff you'd expect from some congenial and antiquated TCM movie. In the Paris of "Hour," there's a bitter divide between the French native born and Middle Easterners and North Africans, some of whom, like Hajar, are native born, too. Anushka pathetically clings to her racism and royal lineage but casts aside both in favor of what she really wants — unknown even to her until it finally presents itself. She's appalling, but ultimately sympathetic. 

While there's a Hitchcockian elegance and Old World charm to "The Violet Hour" — Hitchcock was important to "Mad Men," too — it's the music that does much of the heavy lifting here. Hajar first sees Greg from behind, swaying to a particularly famous passage from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," "The Young Prince and the Young Princess," which he is playing on Anushka's stereo. Scheherazade — which means noble lineage — was the narrator of "Arabian Nights," but we're really meant to ask: Is she perhaps Hajar's fictional forebear, too?

"The Royal We" is absorbing in parts, and funny in parts as well, at least during a cruise where Shelly sees the eccentric Romanoffs at play.  (The great John Slattery — "Mad Men's" Roger Sterling — gets a nice, too-brief close-up.) But while the performances are good, the tone is wildly uneven, the story choppy and the end unsatisfying.

Come to think of it, you don't have to take the good with the bad. Watch the first, skip the second.

BOTTOM LINE "The Violet Hour" is an elegant and surprising love story, while "The Royal We" is a sour disappointment. But the best news: A Matthew Weiner show is back on TV. 


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