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The Romanoffs review: Ambitious Netflix series has power to provoke

The Amazon Prime anthology from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner can be soapy, but it tackles weighty, universal themes of identity and interconnectedness.

The Romanoffs

Aaron Eckhart and Marthe Keller in the first episode of The Romanoffs.

Christopher Raphael/Amazon Prime

Some of us have been waiting for Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's next TV project since Peggy Olson marched into her new office in sunglasses and a mini-skirt bearing the late Bert Cooper's painting of octopuses pleasuring a woman.

It's here.

With new Amazon Prime Original series The Romanoffs, Weiner has created, written, directed and executive-produced an ambitious anthology of eight self-contained cinematic episodes depicting the fears, desires, obsessions and obstacles of characters who may or may not be descendants of the Russian royal family. Well, they think they are, and that's what matters.

The first two episodes, the ones I saw, air Friday, with one new episode roughly an hour and a half long dropping every Friday after that.

In an era of increasingly serialized TV shows with rich mythologies and plots that can be tough to follow, The Romanoffs offers self-contained, almost independent episodes, which feels like a breath of fresh air. You might even be able, as with Black Mirror, to decide after only a few minutes into an episode if you want to invest more time. But since some characters are likely to show up in more than one episode, I'm betting it will pay off to watch the miniseries in its entirety.

If, like me, you really don't know much about who the Romanovs were or why some spell their last name with a "v" and others with two "fs," don't worry. This isn't a historical show. Weiner starts with an opening-credits sequence that shows how this aristocratic family was killed at gunpoint in 1918. But also how at least one member of the clan -- clad in a blue cape and reminiscent of Anastasia -- managed to escape. With this show, Weiner fantasizes about what could have happened to the survivors' descendants.

The show is set in seven countries across three continents. The Romanoffs takes us first to present-day Paris, photographed with reverence and love, where American Greg Moffat (Aaron Eckhart) and his Parisian girlfriend Sophie (Louise Bourgoin) live, practically hoping for the day his aunt Anushka (Marthe Keller) will die and leave the pair her dreamy apartment. "She's never going to die. We're never going to get that apartment," Sophie cries after she and her beau can't leave for a much-needed Mediterranean vacation because the very difficult Anushka is in the hospital, again.

To escape to the beach, Greg needs a new person to care for Anushka. The caregiving agency sends Hajar (Inès Melab), a French nursing student and Rimbaud reader named Hajar, who's Muslim, wears a head scarf and has everyone asking where's she's from. This isn't the first Amazon original show this year to tackle the subject of discrimination against Muslims in France. But The Romanoffs addresses it in a far more nuanced way than Jack Ryan did.

The Romanoffs

Marthe Kelly and Inès Melab in episode 1 of The Romanoffs.

Christopher Raphael/Amazon Prime

The episode, titled The Violet Hour, delves into greed, selfishness, procreation and identity. Since it does that in a light, almost soapy way, you might miss the many layers on a first viewing. What's Weiner trying to tell us about the childless Sophie? Why do we feel an obligation toward our family members? These might be just some of the questions you ponder after watching.

The second episode moves to a suburban US town, where we meet married couple Michael (Corey Stoll) and Shelly (Kerry Bishé) Romanoff at therapy. He seems to be having a midlife crisis aggravated by a considerable amount of boredom, and his wife complains about his lack of desire to do anything, and he seems only halfway content as he passes his spare time playing a game on his cell phone. That is, until he lusts after a brunette (Janet Montgomery) he meets at jury duty. 

The episode, titled The Royal We, explores themes of obsession, pettiness and the driving need for new and shiny things. It also touches again on what makes us who we are and how the past can impact our present, even without us being conscious about it. Look for the 12 Angry Men nod in a procedural story line.

The Romanoffs

Kerry Bishé in episode 2 of The Romanoffs.

Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime

The episodes' length and character development gives Romanoffs the feel of a movie of the week. They're light and easy to follow, but at the same time they require your working brain to grapple with the big themes -- Who am I? Are we connected? -- Weiner says are at the show's core.

Ultimately, The Romanoffs feels like a not-so-distant relative of Mad Men. Both touch on universal subjects like unhappiness, selfishness, ambition and betrayal. Both are very aware of how our past marks our present. Mad Men commented on how the sexist '60s impacted today's society. The Romanoffs reflects on how our ancestors' tragic past can inform our longings, desires and even discontents in the present.

"Our desire to know who we are, both positive and negative, to have a sense of self based on our ancestors, is a very present-day theme in a 23andMe America," Weiner reflects in the show's production notes. "But what really interested me was this idea that maybe, when we do this, we'll find out that we are descended from kings. That might explain why we think we deserve more or maybe we don't care about it at all."

So no, this isn't the Mad Men workplace comedy spin-off you might have been waiting for. But you'll like The Romanoffs if you started considering meditation after that Don Draper's Om moment just to get you through the stress of your favorite show ending.

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