Once upon a time, Amazon’s “The Romanoffs” was one of the most highly anticipated shows of the fall season. Five episodes in, however, Matthew Weiner’s long-awaited follow-up to “Mad Men” hasn’t found much of a footing at all.
Despite an all-star cast and impeccable production values, the series’ ruminations on the intersecting biases, nuances, and shortcomings amongst the wealthy have proven to be far less effective than “Mad Men’s” examinations of the same. And no episode better illustrates “The Romanoffs’” confusing approach than this week’s episode, “Bright and High Circle,” starring Diane Lane as a concerned mother trying to figure out whether a misconduct accusation levied against her family’s beloved piano teacher, David (Andrew Rannells), is accurate.
Variety’s TV critics got together to unpack this episode and the impact of the series overall.
Caroline Framke: When I first reviewed “The Romanoffs” a month ago, I wasn’t completely swayed by the three episodes I saw, but maintained some tentative enthusiasm given the casts and creative team. The more I think about the series, though, the less sure I am that “The Romanoffs” is standing on solid ground.
Even beyond my general annoyance with bloated TV shows (there’s not a single episode of television that needs to be 90 minutes long!), every chapter feels more like a nebulous thought experiment than sharp slices of observational drama. And “Bright and High Circle” feels like an especially confusing attempt to say everything and nothing all at once.
As co-written by Weiner and Kriss Turner Tower, the episode tries to tackle the complex realities of someone being accused of terrible things and the ripple effects thereof, but never quite figures out what to actually say. Sure, it acknowledges that the situation is layered and maddening and fraught, but by the time the credits roll, my main takeaway was that there wasn’t much of a takeaway at all. And even though I was largely more bewildered by the episode than offended, it was hard to ignore the greater context of a definitive, late-breaking speech delivered by Ron Livingston (playing Lane’s husband, Alex), in which he insisted to his sons that “bearing false witness is the worst crime that you can commit,” because “when you accuse somebody of something, whether they did it or not, you make everybody look at them differently.”
It’s impossible to ignore the real-world context: Weiner’s former assistant, Kater Gordon, has said she left the entertainment industry even after they won a writing Emmy together in part because he made her uncomfortable with sexually explicit comments (a charge Weiner denies). Ending the episode on a monologue that essentially boils down to “but his reputation!” is uncomfortable, to say the least. And adding that “whether they did it or not” qualifier isn’t just laughably strange, but willfully obtuse. If “whether they did it or not” is besides the point, what the hell is the actual point?
I’m not even saying Weiner can never write about this subject given his personal history. I’m just saying, if you’re going to write a story about harassment allegations when you yourself have been accused of harassment, you better have something incisive to say rather than play out scattered thought exercises.
Daniel D’Addario: I was similarly unimpressed. When I learned the premise of the episode before screening, I admit I half-hoped to be gravely offended, if only because that would be a reaction at all; the first four episodes of “The Romanoffs” have left me ultimately frustrated and bored. There hasn’t been enough meat on the bone in any of them to justify even an hourlong running time; thinking back to how dense and layered “Mad Men’s” episodes tended to be, I’m struck, not for the first time, by the thought that limitations tend to be beneficial to any artist.
But this felt like more of the same for “The Romanoffs”; a comedy-of-errors premise about the misadventures of feckless rich people told with grimly straight face and commitment to the pose that said misadventures rise to the level of serious drama even as little of consequence seems to be happening. The debate around whether or not to fire the family’s piano teacher seemed fueled by the unwillingness to speak openly that tends to haunt wealthy families in fiction, an elaborate and courtly dance of things unsaid that tends to be more interesting to creators than audience members. Given the subject matter, and its proximity to Weiner’s own experience, viewers were owed more than this.
Maybe the premise of the show is its original sin: In order to believe one is a descendant of the Romanov dynasty, one must have both a healthy dose of self-regard and a certain willingness to indulge delusion. The show appraises its characters in a loving enough light to treat their self-regard and their delusions as equally right and proper. I will note that Rannells nails a challenging character who seems brought in from outside the milieu in which “The Romanoffs” is most interested. He’s transparently a climber, someone whose ambitions and appetites necessitate flattery and unctuous charm; so many actors would have made the piano teacher purely slimy, but Rannells shows us why he’s such a compelling addition to a household.
It’s not enough, though, to salvage a story that’s too much of a drudge to offend. “Bright and High Circle” seems to be posing a moral quandary to its audience, but one that’s muddled by specifics to which almost no one could relate and ultimately answered by a bizarre and out-of-character declaration about “bearing false witness.” It ends up lecturing the audience, something “Mad Men” at its best steered clear of and something Weiner’s in no position to do now. The whole thing feels like a dishonest and self-serving bid for sympathy rather than like an artist working through his experience in good faith, closer to Louis C.K.’s recent “comeback” comedy sets than to the frankness that distinguishes real art.
I want to believe a different show and showrunner could tell a story of a reputation destroyed due to erroneous rumor, but Weiner was already the last person I wanted to hear on this topic even before his writing revealed a strident sort of anxiety. Do you think there was any way “The Romanoffs” could have handled this topic more elegantly, or was the episode better off not having happened at all?
Framke: I wish I had a decent answer to that question, but more than that, I wish “The Romanoffs” did, too. I don’t necessarily think the topic should be off-limits, but if you’re going to take it on, you better have a clear idea of what you want to say. By the end of “Bright and High Circle” — which does not, in fact, say whether or not the accusation is true — the only real stab at clarity is that bizarre “false witness” monologue. It’s weird enough in context of the episode (Livingston’s character was all in on believing the worst until he suddenly wasn’t), weirder still within the context of Weiner’s own life.
One of the more frustrating things about this episode (and “The Romanoffs” in general) is that every so often, it does hit on an interesting social dynamic that could be a more rewarding avenue to explore. A couple of the best moments in “Bright and High Circle,” for example, come courtesy of Debbie (Cara Buono, great as ever), an eager mom whose attempts to fit in with the wealthy snobs surrounding her only further alienate her from them. At one point, David scores points with another mom by making fun of Debbie’s kitschy Parisian-themed kitchen (“it looks like Versailles threw up in here”). At another, her anxiety after hearing about the allegations thirdhand seems like another example of her wanting to be in the loop for social reasons, only for her to reveal that, no, she’s just concerned that her relative lack of power in the community could make her kid more vulnerable to abuse. The brief scene of her confronting Katherine (Lane), only to be left crying on the curb, is more fascinating than the dozen or so we get of Katherine worrying.
Two other aspects of “Bright and High Circle” are worth discussing more than “Bright High Circle” itself bothers to. When Katherine tells Alex about the allegation, he exclaims, “I knew it,” insisting that David always made him nervous because he’s “a gay piano teacher.” There is, unfortunately, more than a kernel of truth to this hyperbolic reaction; there’s hardly anything that riles an insecure straight man more than a confident gay one, and the paranoia of adult gay men preying on male children is an ugly societal stain that refuses to disappear. But “The Romanoffs” only raises the issue without fully interrogating what it means, which is a shame.
And then there’s Alex’s flashback to being a kid who befriended a cool skater neighbor named Allen with long hair, and everyone else making fun because they thought “Allen’s a girl,” and Alex’s father reaming him for buying into the “mob” mentality of it all. The episode first presents the anecdote as Alex explaining why accusations are harmful (despite fully believing it the second it arose), before pulling the rug out from underneath it when Alex reveals that Allen was, in fact, a girl named Ellen. Is this a cautionary tale about “mob rule” running rampant? Is it a story about instincts being right? Is it about a trans boy getting unfair scrutiny? Whatever it is, “The Romanoffs” thinks it’s enough to just throw it out there and let the audience decide. That approach can work sometimes, but so far on this show, it almost never has.
D’Addario: Weiner’s treatment of LGBT characters on “Mad Men” — in the main, using them as prisms through which to refract the ways in which straight protagonists understand the world — was among my less favorite aspects of that show. And that anecdote, as well as the entire Rannells character as written, plays up that tendency.
But should I ding “The Romanoffs” for using a gay character and an ambiguously framed one seen only in memory as didactic storytelling tools when Lane’s and Livingston’s straight characters are, too? While you say, rightly, that “Bright and High Circle” wants to toss everything at the audience and let us decide what it’s about, it oddly never feels ambiguous in the way the best art does. Even as it meanders, it feels absent of the sort of probing curiosity Weiner has evinced before. It’s as though he knows how he feels about these characters, but has held back from telling us.
It’s a shame because, as in the case of several other “Romanoffs” episodes, several very good actors are stranded. Diane Lane, here and on “House of Cards,” is having a season of lending gravity and real thought to characters who aren’t as vibrantly present and alive on the page.
One more urgent thought: “Bright and High Circle” is an oblique title for such a plainly direct episode of television. What do you think it is? My notion was the social circle Rannells seeks to penetrate, but that doesn’t seem all the way there…
Framke: It’s either that or something more obscure and pretentious — which, given the overall trajectory of the show, unfortunately seems more likely.
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