Global organised crime, a handsome male lead, an international cast and a January BBC slot. McMafia ticks all on the list and has so much potential propping it up, it’s almost painful to admit that it has got off to a largely disappointing start. The first episode was peppered with moments of suspenseful drama but as plots have been manoeuvred and characters established, it’s all been part of an admittedly dull, slow burning build. Onto the fifth episode, only now does it feel like the series is picking up.
James Norton’s Alex Godman is the wealthy son of exiled Russians living in London, desperate to abandon his family’s mafia past and establish a banking career grounded in ethical capitalism. It’s a family tragedy that finds him being dragged back into criminal world against his will. It suggests audiences can look forward to a densely plotted, emotionally gripping, and epically proportioned crime drama with the intrigue of The Night Manager.
Perhaps the coverage for the show has been misleading, creating expectations that it was never made to live up to. The volume of references and comparisons have been endless; Alex Godman is the emotional centre of Mcmafia, representing one man’s descent into immorality within a wider network of crime and corruption. So the obvious link is Michael Corleone. He is introduced by stepping out of a fancy car in a fancy suit reigniting Bond parallels and speculation. It is all gangs and gangsters, the rich, the glamour and beautiful women that serve as a facade of crime and corruption. McMafia has all of these but the elements have not come together to form the show that audiences might have expected. The Night Manager, with all the crime, corruption and glamour was lighter in that there was a tone of the ridiculous, the pomp and the silly. Other crime epics and classics, from Goodfellas to The Godfather prioritise character exploration and relationships between major characters in order to maximise emotional consequences.
McMafia is instead a fictionalised narrative based heavily on Misha Glenny’s nonfiction investigation into the criminal underworld of organised, globalised crime. It spends relatively little time with the Godman family who are the emotional core of a show structured by scene hopping around various global locations. Scenes feel understated and at most times, almost stilted. Lines are almost wooden in delivery excluding a few particularly dynamic characters. Characters do seem to have taken a backseat to the transactions of global criminal dealings, making the show feel at times a voyeuristic insight into examples of organised crime rather than a drama in itself. For most, it would therefore seem there was little in the show to root for and feel emotionally invested. James Norton successfully played Prince Andrei in 2016’s War and Peace with a stoic complexity of suppressed emotions. He seems to have gone for a similar approach with Alex Godman but up to now, most of his stilted line delivery has failed to depict a similar level of complexity and instead has produced a male lead that is quite frankly, almost boring. This is where McMafia seems to have failed up to its mid season; it lacks the urgency audiences have come to expect from a show of its genre.
This is, up until now. Episode four was the first real sign that things appear to be kicking into gear. It makes it almost a shame that viewing figures are falling before the show has had a real chance to justify is slow burn. Storylines are streamlining and Alex Godman’s descent into immorality has become very real. His girlfriend, a champion of ethical capitalism, is now suspicious of his behaviour. The emotional stakes appear to be rising and now there are growing reasons to feel a need to care. For the hype surrounding McMafia to have been worthwhile, this needs to be a matter of consistent progression.
There is so much about McMafia that could have worked and can still work. This is risky, understated, almost documentary style storytelling for a show which had audiences hyped for something quite different. Perhaps it’s a case of under-appreciation for what McMafia is trying to do versus something that has been awkwardly put together. Whatever the case, shows like this thrive off emotional investment and up until now, McMafia has taken its time getting many people to care at all.