A review of “Panorama,” this week’s The Romanoffs, coming up just as soon as we toast to the phone company…
Among the perks of being a big-shot showrunner is the ability to turn a production into an all-expenses-paid vacation to some beautiful destination. All you have to do is come up with an excuse for your characters to visit Hawaii or Melbourne or Jackson Hole, and the studio will pick up the tab for you to go along with them. Occasionally, great television comes out of this desire to travel: the Parks and Rec London episode (including Ron Swanson’s side trip to Scotland), Carmela Soprano’s Parisian adventure (but not Tony’s time in Naples), or that time the kids from Head of the Class went to Moscow to help end communism(*). More often than not, though, the creative team seems to have spent more time justifying an afternoon in and around the infinity pool than they have on making an episode of TV that lives up to the standards of the ones shot in their home studio.
(*) It’s been 30 years, and my memory of that particular episode’s plot may not be wholly accurate.
The Romanoffs doesn’t have a home studio. Every episode is shot on location in the country where its story takes place. It’s one of the series’ many indulgences, but it does add narrative value that faking things on a backlot simply couldn’t. It’s that old cliché about how a location is a character in the story. When the first episode, “The Violet Hour,” clicks, it does so because the apartment the drama swirls around, and the city of Paris as a whole, feel like something that anyone could fall in love with. “House of Special Purpose” finds creepy atmosphere to spare in those Austrian woods. “Expectation” could take place in many large cities, but Julia and her daughter feel like a particularly New York brand of spoiled rich women, and seeing Julia eating and drinking at Bergrdorf Goodman or in front of the Flatiron Building helped sell that idea. Not every episode has a distinctive setting (I have no idea where “The Royal We” was meant to take place, other than within driving distance of a cruise-ship port), but the show has never felt like a shameless excuse for Matthew Weiner and his crew to go see the world.
Mexico City does, in fact, feel like a character in “Panorama.” The problem is, it often feels like the story’s only distinctive character. The episode isn’t the nadir of The Romanoffs, if only because the offensive self-aggrandizement of “Bright and High Circle” will be all but impossible to beat. But it’s by far the most dramatically inert installment, springing to life only in those moments where reporter Abel (Juan Pablo Castañeda) is giving Romanov heiress Victoria (Radha Mitchell), her ill son Nick (Paul Luke Bonenfant) and, by extension, the viewers at home, a long look at his native city. Those scenes — at, among other places, the Diego Rivera mural outside the Palacio Nacional, the Metropolitan Cathedral and the ruins of Teotihuacan — are stunning to look at, in every way backing up Abel’s flowery speeches about the history and majesty of his hometown. But those travelogue sequences utterly overwhelm everything in the story of Abel, who’s reporting an expose on a modern-day snake oil salesman running a clinic promising to treat rich people with incurable disease, and Victoria, who has come there in a desperate bid to save her son.
Even Weiner and co-writer Dan LeFranc seem aware of this imbalance. Abel’s editor Frank (Griffin Dunne) — the only notable character to feel like a recognizable human being — is constantly pointing out what a terrible reporter his protégé is, and questions the point of telling stories sympathetic to the plight of the obscenely wealthy. (My guess is that Frank wouldn’t have much patience for a series like this one, which attempts to do the same.) When Abel finally shows him the reported piece, Frank sums up the whole hour-plus appropriately: “It’s not a story.”
In particular, “Panorama” struggles with two things Weiner never did well on Mad Men, either: narration, and people falling in love abruptly. One of the clunkier Mad Men episodes was Season Four’s “The Summer Man” (the one that had the misfortune to follow “The Suitcase”), with Don reading aloud to us from his journal as he attempts to cut back on his drinking and get his act together. Abel’s narration is even more frustratingly pretentious. We open, for instance, on him swiping through Tinder as he pontificates, “Where is the one with the face I can’t live without? Let me choose the picture and see her as she is. Let me pick the angle to catch her unaware. Do you ever look at yourself?” It does not get better from there. As for the out-of-nowhere romances, this goes back at least to Don and Megan(*), and has been a problem at other points in this series, as in the case of Greg and Hajar in the premiere. Skipping steps in building relationships is just a weakness that he has, but it feels particularly rushed and implausible here. Abel spends much of the episode letting Victoria believe that he’s also an ill clinic patient, which is meant to add tension to their scenes as we wait for her to find out somehow and blow up. Instead, he just tells her and she… doesn’t care? The reaction is presented as her being happy that he’s not sick, but there’s no sense that this woman — who has up to this moment been fiercely dedicated to and protective of her dying child — is in any way troubled by or even curious about this deception.
(*) Initially, I took Don’s marriage proposal as evidence of a raging mid-life crisis, since Weiner and the other writers had barely done anything to establish that he might feel that way about her. It soon became clear, both in Weiner’s interviews and how he wrote the couple in ensuing seasons, that he meant for it to be a genuine (if flawed) romance.
There’s a degree to which this may be intentional, at least on a subconscious level that allows Frank to keep questioning the merits of this whole thing. Abel’s narration moves back and forth through Mexican history, considering the many conflicts between the natives and the Spanish invaders, and the ways the two groups have and haven’t become one over the centuries. But like the clinic investigation, it’s all over the map and easily distracted — the sort of thing Anthony Bourdain might have made sing in an episode of No Reservations, but that feels dramatically leaden in this context. The closing sequence attempts to tie the episode’s many disparate pieces together by having Rivera’s murals essentially come to life, with people in costume representing many eras of Mexican history (including Rivera himself, as well as Frida Kahlo) filling up every corner of the frame. But it’s just more spectacle without enough context to make it feel like part of a story.
Hopefully, Weiner and everyone he brought to Mexico City had a good time seeing and filming the sights. “Panorama” occasionally creates the illusion of being there, but never rises above the level of expensive tour guide.