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4 January 2018

McMafia opens the year with a possible future for BBC drama

The manic new eight-parter about the globalisation of organised crime feels like it belongs on Netflix.

By Rachel Cooke

At times, watching McMafia (1 January, 9pm), the BBC’s manic new eight-part series about the globalisation of organised crime, is just like gazing at an airport departures board. The Cayman Islands, Dubai, Moscow in the dead of winter – so many places I really don’t long to visit right now. “What does it take to corrupt you?” asked a beautiful girl in a dodgy Tel Aviv club of our hero (or is he?) Alex Godman (James Norton) shortly before they and all the other revellers were evacuated to the nearest bomb shelter. Alex didn’t reply – he never seems to say anything very much – but in his shoes, I’d probably have answered: “A flight home in the next hour or so should do it, thanks.” The world, as depicted in McMafia, is not only McBland. It is also McScary. Those who insist on blithely wheeling their Prada carry-on bags through its major McPortals do so entirely at their own risk.

If the voluminous advance publicity is any kind of guide, everyone involved with McMafia (adapted by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, who also directs, from Misha Glenny’s excellent non-fiction book) is extremely proud of it. And who can blame them? The series is eerily timely, arriving hard on the heels of the Paradise Papers and the allegations of corruption levelled against the Trump campaign. And thanks to its no-expense-spared locations and international cast – Alex’s Russian parents are played, for instance, not by British actors doing silly accents, but by the Russian stars Maria Shukshina and Alexey Serebryakov – it feels more like a Netflix series than one produced by the BBC. It points, in other words, to one possible future for BBC drama. Make the kind of television that works in a world of subscription services, and even as a public service broadcaster you get to play the market. Thanks to a deal with Amazon Prime Video, McMafia will soon be seen in 200 territories worldwide.

But commercial slickness aside, what’s it actually like? Is there anything much here, beyond all the talk of bribes and henchmen, the cars racing through liverish tunnels, the jeeps dashing over dusty borders? My feelings are mixed. As a clever, non-documentary way of making one think about global crime, it works brilliantly; those signs in corner shops that read “cheques cashed” have new meaning for me now. As a drama, however, it wants for something. Who are we supposed to root for?

Surely not this rich and increasingly unscrupulous banker? Godman is the son of Russian Jews, wealthy exiles to London whose businesses were stolen from them years ago by Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), an oligarch who likes to send Uzbek thugs to slit the throats of his enemies. The product of an English public school, Alex has hitherto always tried to make his own business – a City-based investment fund – transparent and above board; not for him the murk associated with his parents’ homeland. But now Kalyagin has murdered his beloved Uncle Boris. According to Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn), an Israeli businessman who has put money into his fund, Alex will only have revenge if he gets his hands dirty. The plan is that he will launder money for Kleiman – cash that will be used, ultimately, to put Kalyagin out of business.

Yes, Alex has a velveteen charm that is all his own, not to mention a girlfriend, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), who works in ethical capitalism, whatever that may be. And yes, it’s horrifying that his uncle is dead and that his father, deep in grief and vodka, has since tried to kill himself. But it’s not as if there are good guys and bad guys here. Boris died because he tried to have Kalyagin assassinated; Alex knows full well that his uncle was as shifty as any of them. As for Kleiman, he reeks to high heaven (though, unlike us, Alex hasn’t yet discovered that he is also involved in the trafficking of girls). It is, in other words, hard to care too much about Alex Godman. It might be easier if he was less of cipher, if we’d had time to grow to know and to like him. But his descent has been so swift and so silent, it’s almost as baffling at this point as the endless strings of numbers that, from time to time, flash hypnotically across his computer screen. 

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Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss McMafia in The Back Half culture podcast. Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

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This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old