The BBC’s McMafia is boring, pretentious and unnecessarily difficult to follow

Don’t believe the McHype.

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Early on in BBC One’s serious crime drama McMafia, we are told in no uncertain terms how to feel about our protagonist, the glassily smooth banker Alex Godman (James Norton). “You ever know what he’s thinking?” his Uncle Boris asks sarcastically. “He’s got this beautiful smile, but underneath maybe he’s thinking, ‘Screw you and your friends, Uncle Boris!’” “He’s like a wall,” he adds. “I should practise tennis against him.”

The impassive, mysterious, morally ambiguous antihero is a staple of prestige spy and action thrillers, from James Bond to Sherlock to well, every character Tom Hardy’s ever played. We’re used to watching our leads narrow their eyes to let us know that complex thoughts about an ethical dilemma are swirling around their heads as gracefully as the ice in their scotch, before smiling blandly at their wives and loved ones, hollowly insisting that everything’s fine. But McMafia dispenses with the subtleties of letting the ambiguity of Alex’s character surface on its own, instead spelling it out for us less than eight minutes in with heavy-handed dialogue. Just in case you missed it: this dude is impenetrable as fuck and he doesn’t care who knows it!!

This is the problem with the over-hyped McMafia, which reaches audiences thanks to both old-school channels (the BBC and America’s AMC) and Amazon Prime Video. It ticks every box in terms of what we expect from “prestige” drama – lavishly expensive and tasteful international sets; subtitled foreign-language dialogue, spoken by authentic Russian actors; complex, layered plotting; the constant exchange of darkly significant looks; mumbling and, of course, badly written women. But its desperation to be slick, exciting and high-brow has resulted in a show that’s also insincere, pretentious and unnecessarily difficult to follow. Even David Aaronovitch can’t keep up.

We move from location to location so quickly the producers resort to cartoonish sets to remind us where in the world we’re supposed to be. France? Let’s inexplicably send them to Versailles. Prague? Ah, of course, everyone’s conducting their business meetings in a novelty medieval tavern, complete with swords adorning the walls, that looks like it was also used as a set for Scott Disik’s “royal” parties on Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

Some plotlines are obviously tired: the third episode revolves powerful men and their decisions to obscure their business moves from their partners, which is handled with the same level of maturity as the 2002 Spiderman. (They’re lying to protect them. It’s a good thing, dummy.) Five episodes in, and Alex’s partner Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) seems to exist simply to look expensive, clean and concerned while holding very large bouquets of flowers, or to look expensive, clean and concerned while asking her fiancé who he was just on the phone to.

The dialogue is wooden, episodes are filled with close-ups of computer screens streaming with code and dramatic mouse-clicks, and metaphors are overdone. (A man is murdered with a caviar knife!!!! Extreme wealth is violence!!!)

Still, the makers themselves acknowledge that McMafia isn’t everything it sells itself to be. “It's actually a state-of-the-nation treatise on globalisation masquerading as a slick thriller” director James Watkins told the Guardian. “And we’re fine with that.” Instead, he hoped to portray a world in which “the corporate has become criminal and the criminal corporate”.

Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, on which this series is based, opens in 1994 on the Barnesbury Estate in Woking, Surrey. 33-year-old Karen Reed, opens the door when a pizza delivery man rings her bell, and is immediately shot in the head. She died because of her proximity to a world of organised crime she knew nothing about. The story works because it emphasises that anyone, even an ordinary woman, from an ordinary place, can have ties to organised crime without even being aware of it.

The super-rich, mega-elite bankers and oligarchs of McMafia don’t have quite the same impact. We are given little reason to empathise with or even care about these characters. Alex becomes involved with dodgy money worryingly fast – so it hardly feels like a story of well-meaning ordinary guy gets in over his head and can’t back out. Instead, the show slowly reveals the links between what are, at first, very desperate worlds: Alex’s luxurious, calm, plush life and the violent crimes he’s funding. Eventually, overlap appears: like the “gift” of a beaten and chained man in the basement of a beautiful villa in the south of France. But Alex doesn’t seem to care too much about the horrors he funds, and with no good guys to root for, why, then, should we?

As McMafia gears up to go Stateside, UK viewers are getting bored: viewing figures have dropped by over two million, and there are still four episodes left to go. As for me, I think I’d rather practice tennis against Alex Goodman the wall than keep watching him.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.