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Monday, 1 January 2018

REVIEW: McMafia Episode 1

It’s a brand new year and with the new year comes another great drama series from the BBC. McMafia hit screens on New Year’s Day and there’s so much going on in this one, you’ll not want to miss a single second. However, if you’ve yet to dip your toe in the crime-ridden series, then allow me to enlighten you on what you’re missing out on. I’ll warn you though, McMafia isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill British drama. Why? Because it’s not solely British. It’s more global, and with good reason.

Starring the wonderful James NortonMcMafia centres around Alex Godman, a young man of Russian descent who is trying desperately to make his own way in the world, hoping to shed his family’s mafia reputation. But as we’ve come to expect in every compelling drama series, whether it be Breaking Bad or Doctor Foster, things don’t necessarily go to plan for our protagonist and as a result he finds himself facing a series of decisions that could make or break everything he’s worked for.
Much like The Night ManagerMcMafia is a collaboration between BBC and America’s AMC, the famous network that brought us Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. As a result of The Night Manager comparisons, some folks have even hailed McMafia the most anticipated drama of 2018. It’s easy to see why: with both BBC and AMC having a back catalogue of compelling award-winning drama series’ I think it’s safe to say that we we’re expecting a lot.
Everything from the story to budget was fully realised, as viewers were immediately thrown into a chaotic world of crime and money. We first meet our protagonist at a function in London; a fashionably late Alex emerges from a vehicle in a sophisticated manner — a scene that would give James Bond a run for his money (with Norton’s name constantly being thrown around in discussions about the future of Bond, it’s clear in this scene that the young actor would be a perfect fit for the Hollywood spy). It doesn’t take long for us to work out that, despite some of the questionable company he keeps, Alex is a kind gentle-hearted guy. But the question on all our lips at this point is how long will he stay that way? The Godman family (with the exception of Alex) are unhappy in London, and we soon find out that this is because they’ve been exiled from Russia at the hands of Russian mafia member Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze). This revelation certainly seems to suggest at least one of the Godmans had something to do with the earlier assassination attempt on Kalyagin’s life. Cue the drama!

What’s more, father Dimitri (Aleksy Serebryakov) and uncle Boris (David Dencik) are concerned with Alex’s desire to forget his Russian heritage, so Boris makes several attempts to get his shady associates to invest in Alex’s hedge fund. But, ever the gentleman, Alex is having none of it, as he is determined to remain on the straight and narrow.
Norton has been gifted with playing some great characters in the past and McMafia is no exception. Alex is a troubled soul, caught between two worlds and Norton conveys the character’s internal conflict beautifully, often with nothing more than a simple facial expression. It makes no difference whether he’s playing villainous thug Tommy Lee Royce in Sally Wainwright’s gripping Happy Valley, or the adorable Sidney Chambers on ITV’s Grantchester, Norton gives every role his all, and it’s almost impossible to believe that one man is capable of playing such incredibly different characters.
McMafia is ambitious to say the least. In fact, ambitious is probably a bit of an understatement. Filmed in multiple locations including Moscow, Pakistan, Dubai and Mexico, the BBC series is glorious to look at, with stunning visuals and unique cinematography. It’s no surprise really; with a budget of several million pounds per episode, you’d hope that such a show would live up to the hype. One episode in, and it’s looking like money well spent. I would recommend watching in high definition on the biggest screen you can find, because there’s something oddly cinematic about this eight-part thriller.
Projects of this scale tend to get messy, largely due to the multiple locations and convoluted plotlines, but thankfully this isn’t the case with McMafia at all. In fact, I was surprised by how well (and how quick, for that matter) the first episode set up the show’s narrative, with the inciting incident occurring almost immediately as Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze) is targeted for assassination. Much like the death of Jon Arryn in the pilot of Game Of Thrones, this is what sets the McMafia’s story in motion.

The show has the one thing that all good drama series’ need to thrive: conflict. Whether it be the fight between the Godman family and Kalyagin, the uncertainty between Alex and Israeli businessman Semiyon Kleiman (David Straithairn) or the internal conflict that our protagonist struggles with, the McMafia scripts are full of it. Sure, the project is ambitious, but it all pays off. Interestingly, it appears that McMafia is more concerned with long-form storytelling rather than short-term and as result there is potential for future series’, and Alex’s inevitable descent into criminality will likely become the main focus point for the show moving forward.
With more locations that Game Of Thrones’ Westeros, McMafia is one of the biggest television series we’ll see all year from either side of the Atlantic, making it the perfect New Year’s entertainment. I hope your resolution isn’t giving up nail-biting dramas, because if it is, you’ll have failed by the time the credits roll on the first episode. Forget the BAFTAs, if the first episode is anything to go by then McMafia could be getting a few Emmy nominations!

McMafia Continues Tomorrow at 9.00pm on BBC One.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson


Unknown said...

Hmm. Steve, I agree that McMafia looked great – sumptuous, indeed. And it pushed every oligarchical button – the 1 per cent’s private planes, chauffeured limousines, cocktail parties at Versailles, cloudless Tel Aviv beaches – you could see every penny up on screen. So far, so The Night Manager, except it wasn’t remotely like either that – or Breaking Bad for that matter because we don’t give an effing toss about any of the soulless, humourless characters it.
Right from the start Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper, and Bryan Cranston as Walter White seized our empathy and attention through their flawed humanity – you may not have liked them, but you totally cared about their fates. You wouldn’t even have minded fleetingly meeting them as an impartial bystander. But you’d cross the airport VIP lounge to avoid this lot.
It hit all the tropes about the Russian nouveau riche – puerile and poorly educated Putin-style post-Perestroika gangsters wading in to carve up the spoils of the state having trampled over any hopes for Glasnost. OK, that had to be explained to viewers, but they just looked like less nuanced Del Boys.
We are supposed to be rooting for Norton’s Alex Godman; if he were a doctor, a writer, a journalist or a lollipop man we might. But he’s an investment fund manager – just a hop, skip and jump away from being a tax-avoiding hedge fund boss, by the looks of it. I'll cry crocodile tears into my hankie. Let’s hope the script gives him a Fatal Flaw that isn’t just his rotting family.
I haven’t read Misha Glenny’s non-fiction source material – but he’s a superb journalist and I’m sure his information and methodology are accurate. The trouble lies with the team of writers who are having to Jackie Collins it up for a Sunday night audience.
Even the designer label-obsessed characters in Collins’ novels had more verisimilitude than this bunch of cardboard cutouts.

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