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In Amazon’s “The Romanoffs,” the Tension Builds Around the Dinner Table

Weekend streaming recommendations and a roundup of the week’s food pop culture news 

Amazon/The Romanoffs

This post originally appeared on October 26, 2018, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

Welcome to Friday afternoon, a time when no one can judge you for enjoying a piping hot pumpkin spice beverage, or fistful of candy corn. There are so many new TV shows flying around the airwaves these days that it can be hard to keep track of it all. So here are notes on two newcomers and one finale to keep in mind as you plan your viewing itinerary weekend, plus a roundup of the week’s entertainment news.

Dining with the dynasty

Amazon Prime/The Romanoffs

The Romanoffs, Matthew Weiner’s TV follow-up to Mad Men, lacks much of the sizzle of his previous hit, but it has plenty of rewarding moments for anyone who’s willing to settle in for the duration of the flight. Many of the best scenes in the first episode — an 84-minute Parisian saga called “The Violet Hour” — occur around the dinner table.

Anushka (played by Marthe Keller) is an old, rich descendent of the Romanoff clan who needs a cook/caregiver to help her go about her daily life in a majestic apartment with seemingly infinite rooms. She gets the help she needs from Hajar (Inès Melab), a Parisian-born Muslim of North African descent who displays a remarkable amount of grace in the presence of her xenophobic boss. Anushka’s American nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), helps smooth out the wrinkles of life in theapartment, as best he can.

Like Mad Men, this first installment of The Romanoffs is full of unhappy people treating each other cruelly most of the time. But the moments when they do connect are powerful enough to keep the story engaging.

Although Anushka can be a real bruiser, it’s hard not to feel a bit of compassion for her when she sits down for a meal in her cavernous dining room adjacent to Greg and says, “Dinner and a handsome man — I live for this.” Later, as her attitude toward Hajar softens, Anushka keeps imploring her helper to join her at this same table — for coffee, breakfast, or even a cigarette — as if entertaining someone in thedining room is a way to catch a glimmer of her formerly grand life.

The best scene in “The Violet Hour” takes place at a bistro outside of Anushka’s apartment where two characters share a pizza, and theconversation unfolds in ways that feel both surprising and somehow effortless. It’s the beginning of a final act that makes the whole episode worth watching.

This early into the show, it’s unclear whether or not the movie-length stories of The Romanoffs will tie in together and adhere to some master theme by the end of its run. But regardless of what comes later, I think “The Violet Hour” stands on its own as an intriguing little indie drama, like the kind that often plays for a few weekends on one screen at your local art house theater before disappearing into the cinematic ether.

The first four episodes of this eight-part series are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Streaming recommendations du jour

A Chef’s Life/PBS

A Chef’s Life, “The Final Harvest”

Watch it on:

The gist: For the last five years, Vivian Howard’s PBS show has quietly bucked many big food TV trends by focusing on a nice family running arestaurant in a small town in North Carolina — no shouty chefs raising hell, or sensitive geniuses fiddling with tweezers anywhere in sight. It’s a sweet show, full of kind people, and now A Chef’s Life has come to an end.

For the grand finale, Howard prepares two items that she never cooked on the show before, paw-paws and chow-chow, as part of a feast with friends and family in the middle of a cornfield. Each important person in her life — her parents, husband, children, co-workers, and purveyors — gets a moment in the finale to reflect on the five seasons of theseries. Before they all gather at the table, the throwback clips show how this community has grown together over the years.

Even if you haven’t been following along all these seasons, “The Final Harvest” is still an entertaining hour of TV, especially if you’re hungry for something particularly fall-forward.

Camping, “Going to Town”

Watch it on: HBO Go/Now

The gist: The pilot for the new show from Girls duo Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner was clunky and severely lacking any warmth or humor. Which is why it’s refreshing to see that the second episode of this series, which is about a bunch of yuppies who go on an outdoor excursion together, at least nails the humor.

In “Going to Town,” high-strung mom Kathryn (played by Jennifer Garner) leaves the campsite to head to the hospital with her questionably injured son. With the camp director out of the picture, therest of the campers decide to hit up a nearby cowboy-themed saloon and get totally smashed on “jelly doughnut shots.” Things go off therails quickly, but it’s fun watching this ensemble cast — which includes Stranger Things vet Brett Gelman and ’90s icon Juliette Lewis — become increasingly unhinged as they drink their way through a lost afternoon.

Unlike Girls, Dunham and Konner don’t seem to have much empathy for the narcissistic characters that inhabit Camping. I’m still not sure what they’re trying to achieve here, other than mocking urban middle class doofuses, but “Going to Town” is at least funny enough to keep me hanging in there for a few more episodes.

In other entertainment news…

Have a great weekend everyone, and if you’re looking for something relatively challenging to cook, consider checking out Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe for chocolate ganache.

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