Lineage and how it informs the way we see ourselves is a recurring theme throughout Amazon Prime’s new anthology drama, “The Romanoffs.”
The eight-part series, which premieres Friday with two episodes, consists of separate stories revolving around people who believe they are descendants of the royal Russian Romanov family. It was the last dynasty to rule Russia before the czar and his family were executed in 1918 by Bolshevik troops, but lore around possible survivors and their descendants lives on.
“The Romanoffs,” which employs a new cast for every episode, dramatizes this obsession with the Romanovs’ bloody demise in a globe-hopping series of 80-minute stories shot across three continents.
The streaming anthology is the first major television series from “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner since ad man Don Draper went out with that indelible Coke jingle in 2015. The multiple Emmy-winner produces, writes and directs here, pulling in exceptional talent from his hit AMC series such as Christina Hendricks and John Slattery, and other notable names like Diane Lane, Marthe Keller and Amanda Peet.
The first three episodes made available for review are set in the present, eloquently written and feature strong performances from an ensemble cast. But “The Romanoffs” asks a lot of viewers, with far-flung narratives that lack tonal consistency from episode to episode.
Premiere episode “The Violet Hour” is set in Paris and tells a deeply moving story steeped in the realities of aging and the changing demographics of Europe. Anushka (Keller) is an elderly widow who lives all alone in huge, stately flat passed down from generation to generation. She believes herself to be a descendant of the Russian royal family, but identifies as a true Parisian. She’s haughty, harbors disdain for immigrants infiltrating her beautiful city. But they’re the folks who take care of her, employed through an agency by her American nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart). He lives nearby, but his girlfriend and auntie hate one another.
Anushka fires the help — a Pole, a Russian — one after another until Hajar (Inès Melab) comes along. She’s a Muslim of North African descent and has skin the color of “café au lait,” according to Anushka.
The exchanges between them about race and pride in one’s culture are priceless. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Anushka tells Hajar about a family member who died young. When the empathetic Hajar tries to comfort her, the widow snaps back.
“I know it’s hard for you people to understand, because you have so many babies, but we are connected to each other,” she says of her own family bonds. “We have a lineage. We don’t just meet like two dogs in the street.”
“I was born in Paris,” says the hijab-wearing caretaker.
“But you’re not French. Just look at you. You aren’t even trying.”
If it sounds harsh, that’s because it is, but it’s also full of the pain, irony and honesty that brought both women to that place — meaning a big, empty flat full of memories.
If only “The Royal Us” were as gracefully executed as “The Violet Hour.”
The anthology’s second episode is set in America, and it opens in couples therapy with Michael (Corey Stoll) and Shelly (Kerry Bishé) trying to mend a marriage that’s past the point of no return. The rest of the episode is spent on the not very interesting narrative about the mediocre Michael, who’s the Romanov descendant here, hoping to land a hot woman he meets during jury duty. His pursuit of her is slow, tedious and frankly creepy.
And do we really need to see another dude fantasy scenario in detail when there are other stories here to tell? The time would have been better spent focusing on Shelly, who goes on their planned cruise vacation alone and there’s a Romanov society event on-board.
“House of Special Purpose” picks up the pace again when it brings the anthology to Austria. Actress Olivia (Hendricks is wonderful here) has just arrived from the U.S. to star in a TV series about the Romanovs, but she finds that the director (Isabelle Huppert) has gone insane trying to retell the story because, of course, she too claims to be a descendant of the slain royals. But a hostile film crew and several eerie events have Olivia on edge, and the production hanging by a thread.
It’s a wild ride, but it ends on such a bizarre note that it’s hard to decipher what the viewer is supposed to get out of the twisted journey.
As a drama, “The Romanoffs’ ” early episodes are a mixed bag. But as commentary on the current obsession with genealogy and where we came from, it’s worth the watch.
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)