McMafia S1 E1-5 (BBC One)

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After the overload of confectionery sweetness of light entertainment and festive specials over Christmas, the television networks have decided to serve up something more substantial for the New Year with a veritable glut of prestige drama series on offer. ITV has old favourites Vera and Endeavour back on our screens, together with the new offering Girlfriends from the prolific and ever-reliable Kay Mellor.

Yesterday we looked at the high concept offering Hard Sun. Meanwhile, over on Sunday nights BBC One has inserted a bold, uncompromisingly gritty drama about international crime rings. Based on a novel by Misha Glenny and adapted by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, McMafia is the story of successful banker Alex Godman.

The son of a disgraced Russian oligarch, Godman has gone to great lengths to distance himself from his the shadow cast by his family associations, his father having been in exile for decades in London having been driven out fromthe old country. Even so, memories are long: old adversaries arrange for Godman’s business to be discredited in the media, and a member of his family murdered right in front of him. In order to protect the ones he loves, Godman is forced to go into a shady partnership with Israeli politician and shipping merchant Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn).

In many ways, the story of a good son dragged back into the criminal family business is the crux of The Godfather. And here I confess that I don’t have much a great affiliation for gangster movies or TV shows: it took me years to watch The Godfather trilogy (and even then, mainly because it is a work of cinematic art from Francis Ford Coppola); and worse still, I have to admit I’ve never watched the whole of Goodfellas and only the first season of The Sopranos. The world of organised crime just isn’t one that has ever particularly interested me.

And McMafia hasn’t changed that view. To be sure, it’s a well-made globe-trotting drama with impressive performances, which dearly wants to be 2018’s answer to The Night Manager. However, I nonetheless find the subject itself rather alienating. There’s a lot of men walking around looking dangerous and whispering dark insinuations and barely concealed intimidations, and occasionally the simmering tension will explode into a piece of graphically depicted brutal violence to prove a point. The rest of the time the characters move in mysterious ways and peer anxiously at computer screens as millions of dollars are transferred around the world to some nefarious end.

The story is spread across multiple continents, cities, cultural and ethic groups around the world to emphasis the distributed nature of today’s organised crime. As well as financial fraud there’s also drug and people smuggling, with sex trafficking thrown in as demonstrated by a particularly disturbing sub-plot in the second episode. You’ll need to concentrate hard (and probably take notes) to keep track of everyone as they come and go, sometimes skipping entire episodes before emerging back into the story once you’ve forgotten all about them.

The trouble is that none of the characters really stand out or are even particularly likeable. Everyone is pretty much in it to screw someone else over. Godman himself is initially presented as an innocent, but he takes to the underworld rather too well and his interventions seem too calculated and well-executed to have us believe that he’s as oblivious to all this as he initially appears. For dramatic reasons the character needs to be kept purposefully opaque and unknowable, but this proves rather a waste of Norton’s talents – although at least the series gives him a chance to dress up in evening wear to advance his prospects of succeeding Daniel Craig as 007.

The women are largely consigned to supporting roles as wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters (which while lamentable is likely reasonably accurate to the real world of Russian mafia). Godman’s partner Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) is probably the most principled character in the show, but the script conspires to show her as naive, nagging and just a little bit dim so even here the series fails to generate a likeable presence. Ultimately the only appeal in watching McMafia is the odd absorbing sub-plot – an attempt to hijack a rival’s drug shipment from a port in Mumbai is especially gripping, or getting Kleiman off a trumped-up rape charge that threatens to derail all of Godman’s plans. Otherwise, there just the vague overall interest in working out who will be last man standing when everyone else has been messily bumped off.

Unfortunately, that’s not really enough to justify an eight episode investment in one’s time.

Rating: ★ ★ 1/2

McMafia is on BBC One at 9pm on Saturday evenings, with aired episodes available on BBC iPlayer. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 5, 2018.

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