McMafia (UK-US, 2018)

Victim of circumstance?

This is another series that has benefited from the globalisation of the television industry that has seen an increasing number of co-productions meaning bigger budgets. A few years ago if a TV drama needed the American market the narrative would likely have been compromised to suit its apparent needs. However, since the growth of cable, which unlike the Networks will run ‘adult’ drama in terms of content and concept, this is no longer the case. McMafia is a BBC-AMC production with an international cast; the main creative personnel, with the exception of Hossein Amini, are British. Amini is Iranian but has lived in the Britain since he was 11. The director of all eight episodes, James Watkins (of the excellent The Woman in Black), and Amini are credited as ‘creators’ of the series based on Misha Glenny’s brilliant nonfiction account of the globalisation of gangster capitalism; it was published 2008.

McMafia was broadcast on the BBC at the start of the year in the prestige Sunday evening slot (actually New Year’s Day) and then ran the next two episodes on following days before the last five ran weekly. Ratings were high at the start (7.5 million) but had fallen by two million a week later. This isn’t surprisingly given the relatively complex and ‘unsexy’ subject matter of money laundering which requires the drama-sapping image of the protagonist staring at a computer screen. Credit to the BBC for giving the star treatment to a drama that does show the realities of 21stcentury crime that, in Russia, is state-condoned. In the west, the corruption of power is less obvious (unless you’re the Tory party of 2018 or in Trump’s America) because the sham of democracy is an effective smokescreen; in Russia Putin’s one party rule is too obvious.

The big budget allows location shooting in around the world and key locations include Mumbai, Moscow, Prague, Tel Aviv and London. Hence an international cast is needed and the quality is high: plaudits to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Merab Ninidze, Karel Benes and David Strathairn. Women are unsurprisingly sidelined but there is a distressing subplot featuring Sofya Lebedeva as a teenager kidnapped into prostitution and the attempts of a bodyguard, played with steely intensity by Oshri Cohen, to help her.

As the series progresses the narrative focus switches away from the machinations of high finance, and its brutal global implications, to the moral degradation of its protagonist, Godin, played effectively by James Norton. Although the latter episodes lose something in terms of educating us about ‘how it all works’, in dramatic terms it is very effective with ‘edge-of-the-seat’ chases and clever plot turns. Hopefully those who enjoyed the series will read the book.

McMafia is a superb drama that is both politically aware and honest in its depiction of moral corruption. There will be a sequel and it will be interesting to see how low he can go.

2 Responses

  1. I agree, Nick with your assessment of this excellent series. I watched every episode and was completely absorbed – and not a little distressed/shaken – by the twists and turns of plot and character, not to say the implications of the subject matter. Interesting though that you say hopefully those who enjoyed the series will read the book. Maybe I’m a purist or something but I never feel inclined to do that. And I’m also usually disappointed when I watch an adaptation of a book I have read. But as I say, maybe that’s just me.

    • In this case it probably won’t matter as the book’s ideas were adapted, all the characters are fictional. I like the idea you’re a ‘purist or something’.

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