The Romanoffs episode 1 review: Mad Men creator's new show opens with a slightly sappy modern-day fairytale

What a great time it is to be making television. Deep-pocketed streaming services are commissioning more shows than one could ever hope to find the time to watch, and the creators of them are rhapsodising – with no small amount of surprise – about the level of control they’re being given.

Take this extravagant new approach, add the creator of the revered Mad Men, and you get The Romanoffs: a lavish anthology series in seven languages, revolving around Russian royal family imposters, and with a budget of $70 million.

Matthew Weiner’s new drama is a bold and slightly risky proposition, this feature-length opening episode feeling more like a niche French film than a piece of flagship TV (not that this is necessarily a bad thing).

The title sequence is all the historical detail you’ll be getting. It depicts the members of the House of Romanov being executed by Bolshevik firing squad in 1918, along with an “escapee” fleeing into a forest. DNA testing debunked the notion of any survivors long ago, but Romanov imposters still cling to them as evidence of their imperial lineage. This backstory is merely an anchor to the show – their shared delusion is almost incidental – which will visit different Romanov imposters across the globe each week. This first episode, “The Violet Hour”, only references the haughty Anushka’s (Marthe Keller) supposed ancestry once and does so in passing.

The focus here is actually not on the Romanoff, but Hajar (beguiling newcomer Inès Melab), the Muslim care worker Anushka reluctantly accepts help from at the insistence of her nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart). Bitter, cantankerous and racist, Anushka is living out her final days yellowing the ceilings of her beautiful Paris apartment with cigarette smoke, and blackening its atmosphere with her gloom.

“Leave me alone with my misery,” she declares melodramatically after returning home from the hospital, on the way to which she asked the ambulance driver to take a detour so that she might see the Arc de Triomphe one last time. Anushka is an excellent villain and played with panache by Keller. Absurdly blatant in her prejudice, the Franco-Russian relishes the opportunity to tell Hajar over petit dejeuner that croissants were shaped like an Islamic crescent after the Franks defeated the Umayyad Caliphate in 732 AD. “Every day we laugh when we eat you for breakfast,” she says with a demonic smile. This origin is a mere legend, but what does that matter to a woman who has lived her entire life based on a lie?

Hajar is not triggered by Anushka’s incessant racism, however, and the pair inevitably (France is the setting, but this is still Hollywood) start to warm to each other. When Greg returns to check in on the pair and finds his inheritance under threat, the story takes on a modern-day fairytale quality that is sure to polarise opinion. “The Violet Hour” deals with some weighty topics, and will either be decried as a “white saviour” story or embraced as a heartwarming parable for how love can tear down the walls that identity builds between us. I ultimately land in the latter camp and enjoy this season opener on the whole. Still, there are a few heavy-handed scenes, the most egregious of which is when Hajar rescues Anushka’s drowning dog. A title card might as well light up on the screen: “Emotional turning point”.

“The Violet Hour” has some beautiful dialogue and the show promises performances from, among others, the treasure that is Isabelle Huppert in future episodes. But compared to Mad Men (perhaps uncharitably), the episode is curiously one-note. Weiner’s first show was wonderfully subtle and languorous, at least until the final season. Many of its scenes had no singular purpose and respected the viewer to come to conclusions – if any – on their own. Here, however, every single exchange carries a plot point or a crucial character trait, and nothing is left unsaid. Like the dubious Fabergé egg in Anushka’s gilded cabinet, The Romanoffs‘ surface beauty belies a lack of authenticity.

The Romanoffs season 1 consists of eight episodes, with Amazon Prime releasing a new instalment each Friday from 12 October