In Mad Men Matthew Weiner excelled exploring the world of emotionally alienated people. Its characters worked alongside each other or even in relationship or marriage often without really sharing emotional intimacy with each other, share a few moments where they had no choice such as the loss of someone important to them.
The Romanoffs on the other hand is about connection in surprising places. In the first episode “The Violet Hour” a French-Muslim maid (Inès Melab) develops a friendship with the rich, racist woman she’s serving (Marthe Keller), in addition to having a connection with her nephew (Aaron Eckhart). In the second episode “The Royal We” a couple having marital problems each develop their own connection with someone outside their relationship as the husband (Corey Stoll) is drawn to a woman he’s sharing jury duty with (Janet Montgomery) while the wife (Kerry Bishé) goes on the family ancestry cruise without him and meets another unhappily married man (Noah Wyle). The third episode “House of Special Purpose”, the weirdest and darkest of the three and with the most career driven characters is the closest to Mad Men in terms of alienated characters, however the actress protagonist (Christina Hendricks) does have moments of connection with both her erratic director (Isabelle Huppert) and co-star (Jack Huston).
The dialog between the characters in the Romanoffs is complex. It’s not just about what characters say, but what they don’t say while saying it, which is a trait it shares with Mad Men. Often the silence or the facial expression by the person listening is as meaningful as the one talking. In the first episode Melab’s character is berated by her tenant, but withholds her true feelings or pride. In the second episode both Bishé and Stoll’s characters hold deep unshared insecurities and confusions about their marriage they are not communicated, and in the third episode Hendricks plays a character who in her words has been acting since she was 18 even when the camera isn’t rolling, playing the submissive actress to please producers and directors because she feels that’s what they want of her. The struggle to truly express herself off the set mirrors the desire for her director and co-star to greater express herself on it.
At times it’s hard to believe Matthew Weiner made both shows. Compared to Mad Men, The Romanoffs is lighter and warmer, aesthetically it trades in claustrophobic office settings for a more modern and outdoors friendly setting. The costumes and set designs are not as directly stylized as Mad Men, but the cinematography and score (often using Russian composers) stands out more. A scene with a motorcycle ride through Paris in the first episode especially stands out for visual beauty. Both shows have humor but The Romanoffs feels closer to a comedy designation and has more moments of whimsy, or at least the first two episodes do. The second episode is especially comedic between Stoll’s character using 12 Angry Men tactics to spend as much time in the jury room with his crush as possible, or on the cruise ship Bishé’s character running across some people fully cosplaying their Russian ancestors such as a man who tosses shot glasses behind his shoulder every time he takes one, to the bartender’s chagrin.
Ultimately what Weiner proved in both shows is a fascination with the subject of connection. Mad Men is more concerned of the pain of not having it, while The Romanoffs is about characters who do have it.