A review of this week’s The Romanoffs, “Bright and High Circle,” coming up just as soon as I think like a bus driver…
“Bright and High Circle” is an astoundingly bad episode of television. Just focusing on it as a dramatic narrative, the characters feel thin and wholly subservient to the needs of the plot, which itself devolves into nonsense by the end. It’s not the longest Romanoffs thus far, but it feels like it, because it lacks the highs that previous installments offered at least periodically. Other than Andrew Rannells, none of the actors are particularly well-used, even before the moral-of-the-story portion goes utterly pear-shaped.
But if the problems were just those, it would ultimately be a forgettable misstep: a chronically uneven show leaning into all its worst tendencies in a single episode. It happens. What takes its badness to an exasperating new level is this: “Bright and High Circle” is a story about the evils of falsely accusing someone of sexual misconduct, co-written by a man who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
The Romanoffs was in production when Kater Gordon first spoke publicly about Matthew Weiner’s treatment of her when she wrote for Mad Men. (She alleges, among other abuses, that he said she “owed” it to him to let him see her naked.) So there are two options for what happened with this episode, in which Diane Lane’s wealthy SoCal mom Katherine grapples with how to react to news that her kids’ beloved piano teacher David (Rannells) is being investigated for inappropriate conduct with a minor: 1) The episode (written by Weiner and Kriss Turner Towner) was completed before Gordon’s accusations went public; or, 2) Weiner made the episode after she spoke out, possibly in reaction to her claims.
Neither is a good look. Even if David and Katherine’s plight was inspired by something else entirely, Weiner or someone at Amazon should have recognized that the story could play very differently from how it was intended after Gordon’s story went public, and opted to shelve the whole thing, regardless of the cost or the high-profile cast (which also includes Ron Livingston as Katherine’s husband Alex). No matter where the idea came from, it would be inconceivable for any writer — much less one who has limply claimed, “I’m not hedging to say it’s not impossible that I said that, but I really don’t remember saying it” — to completely disentangle his creative instincts from the fact that his public reputation was on fire.
Even if you didn’t know who wrote it (or didn’t know about the Weiner/Gordon backstory), the climax of “Bright and High Circle” would play like the scripted TV equivalent of all those moronic “Has the #MeToo Movement Gone Too Far?” thinkpieces. The episode takes its sweet time (in now-familiar Romanoffs fashion) getting to that moment, as much of the story involves Katherine and Alex being in the dark about what exactly David has been accused of doing, or by whom. So Katherine fumbles around, has awkward conversations with their three sons and swaps gossip with fellow rich moms Cheryl (Nicole Ari Parker) and Debbie (Cara Buono, who previously worked for Weiner as Dr. Faye from Mad Men and Christopher’s wife Kelli on The Sopranos). Still, she feels paralyzed because she has no idea what David allegedly did, never mind whether he actually did it. There is perhaps a compelling story to be told about ambiguous accusations, but this isn’t it. The other moms feel like cartoons, and Katherine herself is only interesting because Diane Lane is a great actress with unmistakable screen presence that she lends to a barely sketched character. The plot meanders and repeats itself too often. Every now and then, the story wanders into interesting territory, like Katherine discovering that David is a fabulist who has appropriated her own tales of being descended from the Romanovs, or her flashback to how David helped her troubled middle son Henry find focus and joy in piano playing. Mostly, though, it’s tedious.
But then… hoo boy… comes the revelation of what David has been accused of and the family’s response to it. It turns out that David allegedly bought alcohol for a 15-year-old boy. Katherine rightly points out that this is something a child molester might do, while Alex gets hung up on the question of what type of alcohol it was, suggesting that buying a kid beer (as opposed to hard liquor) is totally fine in his book. Alex — who has barely been in the episode to this point but is suddenly treated as its moral arbiter — then goes further, telling his wife, “A good person doesn’t ruin somebody’s life over some random accusation.”
This, right here, would be bad enough. The sentiment itself is fine in a vacuum. Coming from this creator in this circumstance, though, it plays as a harasser asking to be viewed as the victim in this whole sordid mess. And the episode’s not done yet. Alex then launches into a childhood story he believes to be wholly germane to the David question, even though it plays as a non-sequitur: his brief friendship with Alan, a long-haired skater whom the other neighborhood boys kept claiming was a girl. Alex tells his parents about how the kids tease Alan and reveals that he’d asked Alan if he really was a girl. His father’s response: “I’m disgusted. You listened to the mob instead of thinking for yourself.” Back in the present, Alex sits Henry and young Benji down for a lecture of his own in defense of David, again seeming like Weiner’s defense lawyer as he tells them, “Bearing false witness is the worst crime you can commit(*). Otherwise, anybody can say anything about anybody. And just saying it ruins their life. No matter what they did. Does that seem fair?”
(*) I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that murder, among other sins, is a worse crime to commit then bearing false witness. But that’s just me.
You could charitably view this section of the episode as mocking of Alex, who later reveals to Katherine that Alan did, in fact, turn out to be a girl named Ellen. But Katherine, who has been presented as the story’s conscience, goes along with his argument, despite being puzzled by the Alan/Ellen news. She not only encourages the boys to resume their lessons with David, she closes the door to the salon as Benji takes a seat next to David, so she won’t be tempted to look in and see what the teacher might or might not be doing to her youngest son. In a murky situation like this, Katherine would be justified in firing David just for all the documented crossing of boundaries he’s done (claiming her Romanov stories for his own, to her friends, is creepy enough). Conversely, an argument could be made for taking a “trust, but monitor” approach to David and the boys going forward. Closing the door, though, is Katherine — and The Romanoffs — going all-in on believing David, despite ample reason to feel uncomfortable at a minimum. It’s saying that what David does as an artist is ultimately so valuable that any questions about his behavior or character should be treated as distasteful noise to be tuned out.
Again, it’s entirely possible that the story was inspired by something other than Weiner’s personal experience. But this is a situation where there’s no way to separate the art from the artist, because it plays like the artist arguing on his own behalf. And the arguments made veer between nonsensical and offensive.
The Romanoffs has shown itself to be project where Weiner wasn’t told “No” on much, if anything. But someone really needed to step in and do it here. This episode never should have seen the light of day.
What did everybody else think?