Published June 28, 2019
The much heralded “golden age” of broadcast television has already reached its peak. It now gives way to the mercurial silver of streaming. As Marshall McLuhan noted, the obsolescence of a medium is not marked by its disappearance, but by its ubiquity. I would add that with this obsolescing ubiquity comes liquidity, & eventually, mediocrity, as the immense accumulation of content finds its level & becomes placid, like a puddle readjusting to the impacts of skipping stones. This same ubiquity, made possible by the revolution of cable broadcasting, was what afforded such artistic efforts in the televisual medium in the first place– however, even as the number of channels multiplied, such that televisions programmed only to the double digits became incapable of expressing the scope of the bounty, there was still a conceptual limit to the number of accessible conduits for programming. With the explosion of streaming services & platforms & content pipelines came a flood. The streaming services became content-producers in their own right & it became unfathomable to claim critical erudition or control over the expanse. Today, unlike ten years ago, it is truly impossible to have seen it all.
In the earlier days of the “golden age” it was possible to keep track of every “big show”– as their number was limited. Ten years ago, this list would have included Lost, Breaking Bad, The Office, Dexter, Mad Men… & perhaps a few others. Ten years removed, Breaking Bad, for reasons beyond my understanding, has come out on top in the critical consensus– while The Office remains one of the most popular television shows of all time with general audiences. Lost is remembered as an unfortunate mess (though Lindelof redeemed himself with his excellent & underrated series, The Leftovers, that, alas, no one watched). Dexter, despite laying the groundwork for the contemporary obsession with serial killers & True Crime, is almost entirely forgotten. The final “big show” of 2009 was Mad Men, which has disappeared, at least, in my sight. In the “#metoo” age, under the Trump presidency, even the naughty-but-disapproving flirtations with 20th century fraternal corporate “misogyny” has become suspect. In 2008, in the show’s second season, Don Draper triumphantly grabs Bobbie Barret’s pussy as a business negotiation tactic. Can we imagine such a thing being televised today, without an immediate call for boycotts?
Could a show that plays as loose with the contemporary neurosis over proper conduct be made today? What if one was, & no one noticed? Even the greatest of Mad Men fanatics is probably in the dark on the existence of the subject at hand: The Amazon Prime limited-series, The Romanoffs, which premiered to little acclaim & mixed reviews. One would have imagined that the mind behind Mad Men, a defining show of the former administration’s “golden age,” would have garnered a benefit of the doubt amongst formerly-fawning tv critics— but alas, such journos are more interested in “relevance” than art. They saved their efforts for discussions of Game of Thrones— which ended so disappointingly that our collective faith in “tv gold” has evaporated.
Even as the 2016 masterpiece “Young Pope” went undiscussed, aside from niche twitter reactionaries who continue to dream of a real Pope Pius XII, The Romanoffs suffered a worse fate— it is as if it never existed at all. Young Pope at least stayed within the general frame of continuous serialized narrative, which allowed most viewers to watch it as they’d watch any other “bingeable” show— but The Romanoffs, structurally, was far more err “indulgent”— an epithet deployed against both by critics, as codeword for “has subtitles & subtleties” or “references things I don’t know such as, history, theology, & literature.” When I read a tv critic calling something “indulgent”— I replace it in my mind with “actually good.” It’s a heuristic I recommend in all things, & something to remember when anyone describes a work of art (that made them feel inadequate & ill-equipped) as “self-indulgent.”
Formally, The Romanoffs is an anthology series in which each episode functions as a self-contained short story. There are through lines between the episodes— most notably, a book about The Romanoffs is written by one of the characters, adapted by another in another episode into a tv show whose production is the subject of, again, its own episode. This matryoshka doll effect gives yours truly a salutary spinal chill, but perhaps this is another case of “indulgence” for the plebeian horde. One shouldn’t argue with taste, I am told.
But I will argue with you, my reader, my friend. Watch it. Enjoy it. If you don’t, then acquire a taste for it. If you were to tell me that you think caviar tastes gross when I’d offered it to you, I’d respond with the same shake of my head. Your loss.
If my approval of the show does not hold enough weight with you, I’ll continue my persuasion with a heavy statement. The first episode of The Romanoffs does everything Houellbecq accomplished in Submission. Not only that— but the episode is deeper, & only takes an hour to watch. It is the perfect opener for the show, but it is not even my favorite (a tough tie between episode 4 & episode 8).
I’ll set the scene for you. Our characters are— an American expat running a Parisian hotel, his wealthy heiress aunt, his French girlfriend, & his aunt’s north African Muslim caregiver. What is at stake is the aunt’s inheritance— an inestimably valuable estate in Paris, & the last items preserved from the Romanov diaspora. A mimetic rivalry between all the characters plays out over the question of inheritance. The American cares more for his aunt than the estate, his French girlfriend cares only for the estate, his aunt cares only for the continuance of her genetic line, & her caregiver cares only for the aunt. The algebra here is easily solved with two additions: the first is the dichotomy between the caregiver & the girlfriend— the French girlfriend is infertile, & the second is my hint here— it is a Comedy. If you don’t have the answer, then you must watch it.
Thematically, the question of western civilization is central in every episode & is expressed in the various characters’ relationships with fertility, family, & tradition. This is the obsessive question Matthew Weiner works with in his oeuvre, as even Mad Men is about the development of birth control in 1960s America. In a true stroke of genius, Weiner tied this question of fertility to the question of the continuance of Western Civilization itself. The Romanoffs are the perfect example of a precarious traditionalism in the modern world. The Romanov dynasty was executed by Modernity. We see this in the opening credits as Tom Petty’s “Refugee” plays (brilliant).
In each episode, we follow the scattered descendants of this lost world as they navigate our own. Most of the characters remain thoroughly bourgeois, though in a few instances, they have become thoroughly petite-bourgeois & “normal”— with their heritage being only a quirk of their biography. This subject matter allows for Weiner to explore the same territory that Mad Men explored, which is, the adaptation of 19th century “realist” morality tales & comedies of manners into the 20th century, & in the Romanoffs, the 21st.
I would compare it to Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”— with the first episode playing a similar role to her collection’s titular story. Rather than the post-bellum decay of the feudal & cavalier American south, the scope is global, stretching across the Bering Strait from Siberia to California to New York, to England, France, & Austria… As we are reminded in the show, the dynasties of old Europe & western civilization were a global phenomenon, just as global as their eclipse by modernity. All classes, from horrifically impoverished Siberian orphans to exorbitantly wealthy Americans, appear within the show. It is an incredibly concise masterpiece which aims at the infinite within the confines of its conceit. The tones of various episodes cover almost everything. There are tragedies, dark comedies, warm meandering anecdotes, single-day epics unfolding in close-to-real-time… one episode is a play on a typical gothic horror story, another, the incredible finale, is a unique twist on the train murder mystery plot made popular by Agatha Christie.
On a formal level, the show is as impressive as any of the “golden age” shows— & its triumph might be in its hidden intricacies. Rather than expanding scope on the content side, as many multi-season epics tend to do, it works within the narrow confines of eight episodes. There will be no second season, nor should there be. It was designed as a pure passion project, brought into existence by Amazon’s assurance that Weiner could do no wrong. There is no way this show could have been made in any environment but the glut of funding for the silver age of streaming. The concept does not pitch well, as I’ve discovered trying to pitch it. It sounds rather boring or “indulgent.” Where are the dragons? The zombies? The cartels? Who is this show for? How did an American get millions of dollars to make a high concept eight part anthology art film about, not even the Romanovs themselves, but their fictitious descendants?
This surely went down as a failure in the Amazon offices, as so many of their attempts to break into the content-production racket have. & this is a shame, as we are less likely to see more shows like it. & who is to blame for this? Is it the viewers who did not watch it? No. I believe that the blame falls on the “television critics” who rejected what they could not understand. They had only been given the first three episodes to review, & these are not exactly the strongest. In fact, they are much improved in the greater context of all eight. Having to keep up with a deluge of new content, these reviewers pay little attention to the entirety of works, but only broadcast their immediate reactions to snippets divorced from the total context of the whole. Rather than giving bad reviews, they gave average reviews. They said “I don’t know” & moved on to the next package of review copies. Many of their reviews are paraphrases of other reviews. They are in competition to get their reviews out on time— to be relevant, before attention passes on to the next new show & the next.
No review from a professional reviewer mentions any episode after the third. I checked myself, but you can look if you want. Would you accept a review of the first three songs on an eight song album? Would you feel betrayed if you discovered that every review of this eight song album only mentioned the first three songs? Should we not hold “critics” to higher standards than this, when their reviews are heavily weighted & determine such things as the number of “stars” a work gets when suggested by a streaming service algorithm? We all fall victim to this environment, even people as cynical as myself. I did not give the show a chance. I passed it by after seeing “mediocre” reviews. This is not a new problem. Read Jack Green’s “Fire the Bastards” which proved a similar trahison des clercs amongst book reviewers in the 20th century, who panned William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions” for being “overly long, self-indulgent, excessive…” despite none of them having read the damn thing…
Ah, but you probably do not care much at all for this sort of thing, the inside baseball of acclaim & algorithmic consensus building, its impact on the viability of art… You want to know, I imagine, if this show reaches “problematic” conclusions, no? You want to know if it is a “bluepilled” show or if it is “based”? I already compared it to Houellebecq, which should have answered that for you, but I can go on.
Matthew Weiner has always been skeptical of fashionable moralities. Mad Men explores advertising, which is synonymous with what we now call “virtue signaling.” He deploys the high benevolent irony available to viewers of a perspectivist narrative, giving each character a coherent & reasonably argued take on the moral issues raised within the plot. Where the narrative fate chooses sides, it always chooses for fidelity, fertility, & loyalty. In the show’s fourth episode, a feminist mother who has cuckolded her husband has a day-long crisis over her daughter’s acceptance of a traditional role as a homemaker & mother for a wealthy & older husband. It is the daughter who emerges with grace, which I’m sure would have been quite controversial amongst tv critics had any of them watched it. In the first episode, we find that the racist tirades of the heiress aunt are merely foreplay to a real appreciation of difference between her & the Muslim girl who, dressed up in Romanov finery, becomes the mother of a future France. Just as in Houellebecq’s Submission, the conservative Catholic finds herself pleasantly at home under an Islamic regime. This episode is a Comedy.
The seventh episode is a critique of abortion & its consequentialist morality of economy contrasted with the “irrational” deontological ethics of accepting a “bad deal”, by means of framing this debate as a question of adoption for an infertile couple. No clear winner or loser emerges in this debate, only the irreconcilable tension of two perspectives which cannot be synthesized. This episode is a Tragedy.
The medium is the message, as McLuhan noted. What is least interesting in these episodes is the “point” we are left with in the denouement. This is only because such points are determined by the type of plot structure in which the perspectival characters are deployed. In the comedic episodes, we find synthesis. In the tragedies, we find cathartic splitting. What is far more interesting is what I have attempted to impart earlier— the ornate formalism of the show, the detail, the performances, the scope of settings and situations. What is most satisfying about The Romanoffs is its craftsmanship. No minute is wasted. No scene is without purpose. A piece of the background in one episode might reemerge, without you noticing, in another much later. It is this sort of thing, the dense connective tissue holding these eight episodes together, which should be admired.
So just watch the show already. I don’t think they’ll be making many more like it.