'McMafia': TV Review

Sturdy but slow.
2/26/2018

AMC's dense, sprawling story about Russian mobsters is solid, but gets bogged down in slow pacing and murky motivations.

It's possible to discuss the merits and demerits of McMafia, the upcoming drama series from AMC that was a co-production with the BBC and sports an international theme and cast, with an emphasis on Russia, everybody's "It" country of the moment.

But it also seems relevant and necessary to think about the shifting worlds of the TV industry and even TV criticism, since one of the main drawbacks of the intriguing but flawed eight-part McMafia is that it moves at a slower pace that might not play as well in 2018 as it might have even as recently as 2015.

Things are changing quickly in the TV universe. Moving a bit slowly isn't a sin, and TV content in general has for years separated itself from film in part because it can tell stories at a slower, more evolved pace — but there's no getting around the fact that pacing is an issue in the Peak TV era.

McMafia is a somewhat sprawling, interconnected mystery in which it becomes clear after the fourth episode that it's aiming to keep its biggest reveals for the end, but there's sufficient worry that some people may never get there.

And here's the thing: McMafia isn't ultraslow in the same way that Rectify, that poster-series for the long-dead Slow TV movement was (and, quite clearly, nowhere in that class). But within its twisty confines is a languid pace that seems to suppose — maybe because its origins are British? — that viewers will come back eight weeks in a row at the same time each week and settle in for a little international espionage, bouncing lithely but not quickly from London to Moscow to Mumbai to Israel and a few ports in between.

But will they?

Granted, this is a question you could ask often in the Peak TV era, but it's certainly possible (and unfortunate) that the crush of available, unwatched and supremely hyped other offerings could create a situation where viewers take a pause or look elsewhere. That's a real and troubling fact of life, especially for cable channels that roll out episodes in the traditional weekly structure. If there's one advantage streaming services have by dumping full seasons online, it's that, in situations like McMafia, where a complex plot is unspooled (with, for the most part, solid writing and strong acting), streaming subscribers could then immediately check out the second episode (and so on) to see if they'll remain hooked, and binge if so. Waiting seven days after an episode that doesn't quite ensnare a viewer to see if they'll come back is a thoroughly risky proposition in this modern world, and one that executives no doubt have discussed.

It might be a coincidence (or not), but AMC is also offering all of McMafia to be streamed, commercial free, on AMC Premiere, the "upgrade option" of the channel that subscribers to Comcast Xfinity TV can add to their video package for $4.99; both AMC and FX announced similar plans for streaming services in 2017 and they will undoubtedly hold some allure for viewers who like content from those two providers and can afford the option.

For everyone else watching McMafia week to week on AMC, it could be that, regardless of presentation, the show just doesn't have enough going for it to offset its weaknesses (and a dubious decision in the fifth episode didn't exactly leave me in a hurry to get to the eighth for the wrap-up).

The series is based on the nonfiction 2008 book of the same name by author Misha Glenny, turned into fiction by Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black; Black Mirror), with the latter directing in addition to co-writing some episodes with Amini.

The story focuses on Alex Godman (James Norton, Grantchester, Happy Valley), a British-raised, Harvard-educated man whose Russian mobster family moved to England when he was 6. Now a British citizen and upstanding, wealthy investment banker, Alex mostly seems to be disavowing his parents' life for the new one he's created with his fiancée, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), who is an adviser to a rich "ethical capitalist." Much to the disdain of his drunk, depressed father, Dmitri (Aleksey Serebryakov), Alex doesn't even like speaking Russian.

Of course, when your father was a Russian mafia player and your uncle is actively doing the same in the old playground, it doesn't take much to ensnare you when your fund is smeared by association and veers into trouble.

This is the leaping-off point for McMafia, and you could applaud the series for roaming in a number of directions with a rich array of characters, as it globe-trots to various locations and looks at how major figures throughout the world can be above the dirty business of crime while also having all 10 fingers in it.

The trouble for the series is two-fold. First, it presents Alex as a mostly disconnected man whose thriving fund and good life with Rebecca are what he most wants from life while he's almost emotionally distant from his family and past. So when a murder draws him closer into a world he doesn't want to be in, it's almost like he slips into it inch by inch — which is initially both conceivable and believable. But the series wants you to simultaneously believe he can't make the decision to get out of it and also slowly lusts to get deeper into that lifestyle, when neither seem to be the case as presented.

Secondly, as Alex's fate plays out slowly, McMafia decides to tell the stories of the surrounding characters, including the Russian mobster Vadim (Merab Ninidze); Russian exile (and mobster) turned Israeli citizen and politician Semiyon (David Strathairn); Alex's mother (Mariya Shukshina), father, uncle (David Dencik) and then much later his sister (Faye Marsay); Vadim's family; Semiyon's underlings; various factions and players in Mumbai; and, if that wasn't enough, a suave member of the Mexican cartel.

That's a lot of people. And it's not even all of them — McMafia has plenty of scenes with people so far down the list of importance you wonder why they're bothering, which is part of the problem. So, too, is whatever accent Strathairn is using; it may be a dead-on accurate representation of a Russian who lives in Israel, but it's never less than distracting every time Strathairn, a wonderful actor, speaks.

But circling back for a small detour, McMafia doesn't exactly excel at letting Norton, who is rumored to be the next James Bond, sell the idea that his character is truly struggling with getting out of his jam or embracing his family's mafia DNA; if he'd been allowed to, it would have made the rest of the character excursions more tolerable.

Mostly he just stands there placidly, looking into the distance. Maybe the poker face is meant to conceal which way Alex will go, but often it comes off as not letting Norton do some acting.

"Where is all this going and should I really care?" is the question that plagues the series, despite some compelling elements and a gifted international cast. In McMafia, the ambition is there, but the interest to see it play out may not be.

Cast: James Norton, Juliet Rylance, David Strathairn, Aleksey Serebryakov, Mariya Shukshina, Fay Marsay, David Dencik, Merab Ninidze, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Created and written by: Hossein Amini, James Watkins
Director: James Watkins
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (AMC and AMC Premiere)