History might be kinder to "The Romanoffs," but in the current moment, this loosely connected anthology series looks like a self-indulgent lark -- with "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner reveling in the creative latitude all those Emmys earned him, getting Amazon to finance a project whose appeal might be even narrower than students of early 20th-century Russian history.
Basically, the program's jumping-off point is stories involving people who claim to be heirs to the ill-fated Romanov family, who were slaughtered by Bolsheviks (a sequence dispatched with during the opening credits) as they seized power a century ago.
What emerges, though, are basically independent films -- each running about 90 minutes -- telling stories with a beginning, middle and end, but none (of the three previewed) so distinctive or compelling as to merit lining up to see them.
The format does offer one distinct advantage, helping Weiner (who directed every episode, and wrote or co-wrote six of the eight) attract big-name actors, including a number of "Mad Men" alumni. But the disjointed nature of the approach -- and beyond-wispy thread connecting them -- makes the whole project suffer from an emotional distance, making it difficult to connect.
The first episode is perhaps the strongest, featuring veteran actress Marthe Keller as the imperious matriarch of a Romanov-connected family living in Paris, who chases away every caregiver that her nephew (Aaron Eckhardt) hires for her. That changes when Hajar (Ines Melab) comes into her home, a young Muslim woman who Keller's character initially abuses, before gradually bonding with her.
Another installment features Corey Stall and Kerry Bishe as an unhappily married couple, whose marriage is tested when he gets jury duty -- and becomes obsessed with a fellow juror -- forcing her to attend a Romanov-themed cruise alone.
The third (and weakest) entry has a bit of "The Twilight Zone" baked into it, with "Mad Men's" Christina Hendricks as a movie star who has somewhat reluctantly taken a role in a European miniseries about -- what else? -- the Romanovs.
Each previewed film has its merits, to varying degrees, but it's hard to escape asking, "What's the point?" As stand-alone movies, there's not much of a market for such character-driven, understated titles, but unlike past anthologies a la "The Twilight Zone"), it's hard to make a case for watching them when the foundation is so tenuous. (In a programming switch, Amazon will roll out chapters weekly after launching with the first two.)
The casting and international locales are surely impressive. But the real star here is Weiner, bringing an auteur's touch to these meticulously crafted tales even by the standard of streaming services, which tend to be more permissive in championing artists' peculiar visions (in exchange for the cachet they bring) than almost any other medium, without regard to ratings.
In show-business terms, "The Romanoffs" certainly conveys its pedigree. But like so many who have claimed that royal lineage, the result turns out to be pretty pedestrian.
"The Romanoffs" premieres Oct. 12 on Amazon.
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