In my opinion the first episode of the BBC’s first new drama of 2018 McMafia really really dull. Lead James Norton often looked as bored and disinterested as I was and I struggled to connect with any of the characters. There’s an incident which I shan’t spoil here at the midway point which did make me sit up and take notice but once it had subsided I quickly grew tired and disinterested again.
There are those who have jumped to its defence on social media saying not everything needs to be racing along at lightning speed and I agree with them. I don’t need a show to be heavy on intensive action scenes to keep me from checking my twitter but I do need to feel part of the story and have someone on screen I’m interested in. I couldn’t tell you anything about Norton’s character or his personality and because I found him so hard to connect with It’s hard to care about any predicaments he may find himself in.
I was listening recently to a show on Radio 4 I’d recommend which looks at how social media has changed storytelling and how bloggers like myself are often too quick to criticise things and give what Mark Lawson termed ‘knee jerk’ reactions to a show disming them quickly. In the case of something like McMafia I just think it doesn’t match the quality of storytelling that we’ve come to expect from contemporary drama. Those who praise it will say how it looks great and how James Norton could use it as his audition for James Bond, but no one has spoken about its substance because that’s what its truly lacking.
The first episode of any show is a tricky one. It has to accomplish so much. The main of objectives of any first episode are: 1) Set up the characters and explain their connection
2) Explain the world the characters inhabit
3) Engage the viewer with something intriguing or exciting.
I feel that McMafia failed on each. First episodes might have a tricky balancing act to achieve but that doesn’t mean they have to be plodding or dull.
Let’s take BBC1’s masterpiece Happy Valley which had its first episode back in 2014. Unusually for me I knew very little about Sally Wainwright’s police drama before pressing play on our previews site. The episode begins with Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood parking up her police car and popping into an newsagent to ask if they have a fire extinguisher. “I’ve got one in the car but I may need something bigger”. Then an elderly woman appears at the shop door to tell Catherine there’s a fella threnting to set fire to himself to which Catherine calmly replies, “yes thank you we’re on top of that.” We learn more about the man attempting to set fire to himself as Catherine and her colleague walk towards the scene extinguisher in hand. Wainwright’s dialogue is fast paced, comical and true to life. As she attempts to defuse the situation she delivers a speech that will always stick with me as one of the best ways of setting up a new character to an audience. “I’m Catherine by the way, I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict, I’ve two grown up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me so…” In that fantastically put together speech viewers who two seconds ago were brand new to the world Wainwright had thrust them in where now fully aware of who their lead was and her complete backstory and because it was delivered in such a matter of fact way we were instantly on her side and would be throughout.
I don’t expect every show to be Happy Valley. Although more should, what I’m saying is that first episodes can win you over instantly. Too many dramas today are about the setting or the world and they forget that dramas are about characters. McMafia took viewers into the world of finance and Russian criminality but didn’t do a good enough job at explaining to us how either world operated. BBC drama of late appears to have steered away from character driven stories in favour of ones that plonk the viewer in exoctic and lavish looking locations forgetting to bring interesting people along for the ride. SSGB, The Last Post and others I’ve quickly forgotten haven’t had the characters in them for viewers to latch onto and McMafia appears to have fallen into that trap now too.