Can Matthew Weiner turn The Romanoffs into a Mad Men-sized hit?

The showrunner’s costly follow-up boasts a sterling cast and a fascinating premise but carries considerable baggage

Three years after Mad Men concluded its extraordinary eight-year run with a linen-clad Don Draper meditating on a hilltop, the showrunner Matthew Weiner is back with his highly anticipated follow-up. Earlier this week, Amazon dropped the second teaser for The Romanoffs, an ambitious, expensive episodic anthology series following various families who believe themselves to be descended from the titular Russian dynasty.

The show, premiering in October, boasts a loaded cast, a unique conceit and, in Weiner, a writer-director involved with two of the greatest television series of all time. The question most certainly on Amazon’s mind is whether The Romanoffs, with all its obvious prestige-TV credentials, will attract the eyeballs and critical acclaim the streaming service needs to compete with the likes of HBO and Netflix, which have emerged atop the awards show heap as Amazon looks for its first hit original drama.

Amazon’s first hurdle, and one that went curiously unacknowledged in the internet’s collective excitement over the star-studded trailer, is an allegation of sexual harassment lingering around Weiner. Last November, amid the tidal wave of revelations about systemic misconduct in Hollywood and beyond, the Mad Men writer Kater Gordon accused Weiner of telling her “she owed it to him to let him see her naked”. Gordon was ousted from Mad Men a year later and, despite her Emmy award, hasn’t worked in television since. Marti Noxon, creator of the shows UnREAL, Dietland, and Sharp Objects, and a former consulting producer on Mad Men, came forward to corroborate Gordon’s account, calling Weiner “an emotional terrorist who will badger, seduce and even tantrum in an attempt to get his needs met”. Weiner, she continued, created “an atmosphere where everyone is constantly off guard and unsure where they stand”.

The allegations, which Weiner denied, don’t seem to have given anyone at Amazon pause, not to mention the truckload of actors who are set to appear in various installments of The Romanoffs. There’s John Slattery and Christina Hendricks – AKA Roger and Joan of Mad Men– plus Isabelle Huppert, Corey Stoll, Diane Lane, Aaron Eckhart, Kathryn Hahn, Amanda Peet, Andrew Rannells, Cara Buono, Griffin Dunne, Ron Livingston, Clea Duvall, Radha Mitchell, Paul Reiser, Jay R Ferguson, and Jack Huston. With eight episodes shot on three different continents, and no overlapping actors between them, The Romanoffs cost Amazon more than $6m an installment, making it one of the most expensive shows on television.

Which is to say the stakes are high for both Weiner, who’s been deliberately coy about the series, and Amazon, which, despite its bottomless resources (and sky-high valuation), is getting outpaced in today’s uber-competitive television landscape. Netflix has Stranger Things and The Crown; HBO has Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Big Little Lies; and Hulu has The Handmaid’s Tale, which last year made the site the first streamer to win the Emmy award for Best Drama. Amazon has managed to break ground with its comedies, namely Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, but it has poured enough resources into The Romanoffs to suggest it is positioning the series as its own bread-and-butter prestige drama. For the first time, Amazon will release episodes of the Prime original weekly rather than all at once, a decision befitting the show’s anthological structure (and surely intended to maximize hype).

Weiner (L) with Christina Hendricks and John Slattery.
Weiner, left with Christina Hendricks and John Slattery. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/REUTERS

The Romanoffs is Weiner’s first screen project since Mad Men ended, save directing a 2016 episode of Orange is the New Black. Last November marked the release of his novella Heather, the Totality, which got lukewarm-to-positive reviews. The timing emphasized his alleged indiscretions, given that the book – involving a father wanting to protect his teenage daughter from a man he believes plans to rape her – hit stores just as Weiner was being accused of fostering a toxic workplace environment. “How,” asked Vox’s Constance Grady, “could the man who wrote Mad Men’s Peggy and Joan and Betty and Sally so beautifully for TV be so bad at writing a teenage girl in a novel?”

Weiner’s contemporaries in the pantheon of 21st century TV – David Simon, Shonda Rhimes, Vince Gilligan, and Ryan Murphy, to name a few – had mixed results with their sophomore shows. Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, Treme, enjoyed four successful, critically acclaimed seasons but has hardly left the same footprint as its predecessor. And Rhimes’s Private Practice would never scale the heights of Grey’s Anatomy, the series from which it spun off. Between the critical darlings Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan created the short-lived crime comedy Battle Creek, while Murphy, whose first show, Popular, introduced a sensibility he’d later develop and improve upon, began to really hit his stride with his sophomore effort, Nip/Tuck.

Weiner’s second series enjoys far better financial backing than any of those shows did, but it also has to fend off more competition in today’s unprecedentedly bloated TV climate. Once upon a time a pedigree like Weiner’s – 12 episodes of The Sopranos, and 92 of Mad Men – would have been a reliable bellwether for the success of whatever came next. But The Romanoffs, either because of its unconventional structure or its creator’s alleged behavior, might not find itself looming quite as large as those shows did in people’s television diets.


Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

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