Watching Matthew Weiner’s upcoming The Romanoffs and Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s Camping, I couldn’t get over the feeling I had seen these seriously flawed series before — and it was Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal back in 2002.
Coming off the Oscar success of Traffic and the box office hit Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh’s Julia Roberts-led misfire was a big-screen lesson in what can happen to immensely talented people when left entirely to their own devices. That is what we have here with The Romanoffs, the October 12-launching Amazon anthology series from the Mad Men creator, and Camping, the October 14-debuting HBO limited series from the Girls executive producers based on the 2016 UK series.
Like Soderbergh’s film within a film with a face plant, these pretentious offerings might have sounded good over dinner-party conversation after a couple bottles of wine. However, as I say in my video review above, in execution these star-studded projects are scattered and extremely self-indulgent at best, and a true waste of time for talent on both sides of the camera and for viewers.
In her first major small-screen stint since Alias ended in 2006, Jennifer Garner is totally miscast in the eight-episode Camping as the personification of every bad L.A. cliché you can think of, with ex-Doctor Who David Tennant as her put-upon husband, whose birthday they are theoretically celebrating with some organized fun in nature. The surface-level result from the now ex-producing partners Dunham and Konner is something that never would have made past the high standards of the Girls writers room, just for the abundance of clichés alone.
Connected to the doomed Russian Romanov royals who were deposed and then dispensed of by bloodthirsty Bolsheviks in 1918, Weiner’s eight-episode and distinctly internationally shot The Romanoffs was given the greenlight at Amazon during the reign of Roy Price. In typical Weiner fashion, the now Jennifer Salke-run studio has stipulated a long list of things they don’t want critics to discuss about the series and its thematically connected individualized feature-length episodes, which tepidly revolve around identity, self-interest, authenticity and the arc of emotional history.
So no spoilers, except to say with a cast full of the likes of Mad Men vets Christina Hendricks and John Slattery, House of Cards’ Corey Stoll plus Isabelle Huppert, Diane Lane, Paul Reiser, Transparent’s Kathryn Hahn, Griffin Dunne and Ron Livingston among many more, the series directed by Weiner reeks of first draft, at best. From the heavy handed intentional typo in the title and onwards, it might have been better for everyone’s reputations if Amazon had put the clearly pricey series on the shelf, as it has Woody Allen’s Price-approved A Rainy Day in New York.
To put it another way, if you are looking for some of the spark that was the Jon Hamm-led Mad Men to show up in The Romanoffs, it fundamentally does not, at least from the three movie-length episodes I’ve endured. As the Amazon series and Camping unsparingly reveal, lightning in a bottle is hard to come by twice, at least not without some help.
Weiner, Dunham and Konner are clearly smart and creative people with a lot to say and the talent to tell the stories they want to spotlight. As happened with Full Frontal and Soderbergh, who has gone on since to make spectacular projects like The Knick and Behind the Candelabra, with The Romanoffs and Camping they may have found that event horizon where their ambitions were outstripped.
Click on my video review for more of my take. Tell us what you think and whether you’ll be watching.