An uncomfortable moment comes halfway through Matthew Weiner’s new Amazon Prime series “The Romanoffs.”
In the episode, titled “Bright and High Circle,” a wealthy couple discusses whether or not to fire a piano teacher who has been anonymously accused of inappropriate conduct with a student. Throughout the story, it’s revealed that the teacher has very little sense of professional boundaries, told one of their sons blowjob jokes and probably bought another student alcohol. Any one of these facts is good enough reason to fire a teacher or, at least, not leave them alone with your kids. And yet the episode concludes with the husband admonishing his children that, “Bearing false witness is the worst crime you can commit. Otherwise, anybody can say anything about anybody. And just saying it ruins their life.”
The monologue feels a little self-serving given that Weiner was accused of sexual harassment by female TV writer Kater Gordon in 2017.
Gordon claimed that Weiner made sexually inappropriate comments while she worked for him, including that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. In response, Weiner told Vanity Fair, “I’m not hedging to say it’s not impossible that I said that, but I really don’t remember saying it.”
It appears that Weiner is using his art to defend himself — or perhaps any man accused of bad behavior. Which is strange, considering that his groundbreaking show “Mad Men,” which won 16 Emmys and five Golden Globes, spared no such punches for his central male character, Don Draper. The dapper adman was depicted as a shallow, soulless opportunist and philanderer who trifled with women’s feelings, while the show deeply empathized with its female characters — most notably Peggy, Betty and Joan — who were desperate to achieve independence during what was an oppressive time for women.
Money and free rein seem to have clouded Weiner’s judgment. Amazon gave the director $70 million to make “The Romanoffs,” according to Deadline, and when The New York Times asked if he’d been given “carte blanche” on the series, he replied, “It was a wildest-dreams scenario.” As a result, we have a director off the rails, disconnected from the struggles of ordinary people or even the basic constructs of a plotline. He’s even used the series to throw himself a personal pity party.
Anyone watching “The Romanoffs,” whose eighth and final episode airs this Friday, hoping to see the last days of the Russian royal dynasty, circa 1918, will be disappointed. Instead, each unconnected episode focuses on a modern person somewhere in the world who claims to be a descendant of the royal family.
Almost all of the descendants are wealthy. And insufferably dull.
Even in the episodes where there is some concrete goal in mind, the stakes are low. In first episode “The Violet Hour,” Aaron Eckhart wants his aunt to leave him her palatial Parisian apartment in her will. If she does not, he will have to continue living in a mid-level hotel he manages while taking trips to beachy locales with his much younger girlfriend.
The second episode takes great amusement in showing us a cast of little people Romanoffs entertain rich people on a cruise ship. In another, a rich Manhattan woman struggles with whether to disclose to her husband that their daughter — who is well into her 20s — was the product of an affair. It’s never clear what she hopes to accomplish with this revelation, beyond a dream sequence where her husband says he’s always known and doesn’t care.
If you had to find an overarching theme in “The Romanoffs,” it’s power. “Mad Men” also focused on power, but mainly people trying to obtain it or scheme for it — a much sexier prospect. A $70 million budget with zero constraints on Weiner’s creativity or personal conduct seems to have chipped away at the director’s sympathy for the underdog.
In another “Romanoffs” episode, a journalist investigates a clinic that seems to be scamming wealthy, terminally ill patients with unfounded promises of a cure. When he asks the head of the clinic about this, the head replies, “I wonder if you realize that you’ve devoted yourself to destroying things. Why would you want to take anything away from anyone? It’s much harder to give, to build, to create.”
This might be a reasonable response if someone were to write a bad review of your, for instance, mediocre TV show. It’s not a normal response if you’re being accused of stealing money from desperate dying people and their families. The director seems to have lost sight of such truths.
Instead, Weiner — formerly a great chronicler of American ambition and success — has let his own ambition and success derail “The Romanoffs.” The result is a bloated ego trip that even Don Draper couldn’t sell.
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