The Romanoffs: The Death Knell for Streamable “Prestige TV”?

Photo Courtesy of Kayla O'Mahony

Daniel Walker

If one were to pull random people off the street and ask them their opinion on television, it probably wouldn’t take long before one of them offered up the oft-repeated bon mot that “we’re living through the Golden Age of TV.” TV’s newfound period of prestige is a lot less newfound than it may seem, however. Most millennials tend to trace the dawn of TV’s “golden age” to such programs as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, programs which are at least ten years old (and both ended in 2013 and 2015 respectively) and yet, due to their continued popularity on streaming platforms, continue to shape our perceptions of what “Great TV” should look like.

At the time of their debuts, these programs were hailed not just as revolutionary and forward-thinking works that redefined what one could do within the scale of a serialized television program, but as refreshing alternatives to the glut of uninspired and overproduced popcorn media clogging the popular television and film landscape. If one is to consider early-2000s works like The Sopranos, Deadwood, or The Wire, or such early attempts to “gritty up” the network TV drama as NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues, or even television’s 50-year struggle to be seen as a legitimate art form, the notion of “prestige TV” starts to seem less and less exclusive to our time or our cultural moment.

One particularly notable aspect of the TV boom is that, with the rise of the prestige television drama, the concept of the auteur (filmmaker as sole author of a particular work) undertook a speedy migration from the realm of the popular cinema to the realm of television. Thus were the Francis Coppolas and Jonathan Demmes of yesteryear replaced in the popular imagination by the Aaron Sorkin and Vince Gilligans of today. One such TV auteur, Matthew Weiner,  as the chief brain behind Mad Men, recently made his return to the executive producer’s chair with the Amazon original series The Romanoffs. Weiner’s new program, which revolves around a cast of eight people who believe themselves to be descendants of the titular Russian dynasty, was much anticipated upon its release but has been getting surprisingly mixed reviews. Despite the royal subject matter of his newest show, Weiner hasn’t exactly gotten a king’s welcome from the critical gatekeepers of prestige TV.

In her article “‘The Romanoffs,’ ‘Camping,’ and the Problem with Second Acts,” television critic emeritus Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker dissed Weiner’s Romanoffs as “troubled by the same impostor syndrome that it seeks to explore, like a pencil sketch overwhelmed by a gold frame.” James Poniewozik of “The New York Times” concurred: in his review, he describes the self-contained, episodic morality plays that make up The Romanoffs “ornate but ponderous creations, a shelf-busting set of Fabergé ostrich eggs.” Both Nussbaum and Poniewozik leavened their criticisms of Weiner’s portentousness with a general appreciation of his ambition and mise-en-scene, and both of their views on The Romanoffs skewed more towards “interesting but flawed” than “this is a complete and total failure.”

But it’s telling that both Nussbaum and Poniewozik’s criticisms revolve around the emptiness/ineffectiveness of the show’s actual themes as opposed to the lavishness of its production value. Part of what necessarily defines a “prestigious” work of art – in any form – is its proximity to the bourgeoisie, be they patrons, producers, consumers, etc. And it doesn’t get much more bourgeoisie than a multi-part “rich people problems” show bankrolled by one of the richest companies in the entire world. Yet, for all the prestige that Weiner’s name carries in the TV-sphere, he has created a work that by and large hasn’t connected with the critics – the very folks who have historically defined what is and isn’t prestige TV.

In considering prestige TV as a whole, the frosty critical reception to The Romanoffs might be more significant than it initially seems. One might spy a similar parallel in the downfall of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, for which Michael Cimino and his million-dollar flop of a Western, Heaven’s Gate, is generally blamed. Heaven’s Gate was panned for being formally ostentatious but ultimately empty and overlong, and its massive financial failure led to a mass curtailing on just how much freedom major movie studios gave their directors. The Romanoffs won’t likely end up being the Heaven’s Gate of its time, but how much longer can it be until the prestige TV bubble bursts?

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