The defining quality of McMafia, which debuts on AMC Monday night, is glumness. A crime lord sits on a luxury yacht off the Arabian peninsula, as brooding and weary as Nietzsche pondering his book sales. A deposed Russian mobster swigs vodka out of plastic bottles and stumbles hysterically around rooftops. An Israeli gangster attends bacchanalian seaside parties with all the enthusiasm of someone filing their taxes. And then there’s Alex Godman (James Norton), the show’s hero, who proceeds to break bad with a dour detachment that’s less Michael Corleone and more Eeyore.
Shouldn’t getting embroiled in the tentacular grip of the global underworld be a little more, I don’t know, fun? McMafia, an eight-part co-production with the BBC created by Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black), stalks its way through an array of dazzling locations and multi-million-dollar real-estate listings, but it’s burdened with an oppressive gloominess that’s hard to shake. Inspired by the 2008 nonfiction book of the same name by the British journalist Misha Glenny, it spins an extravagant yarn around the thesis that organized crime has adopted the operating tactics and global ambitions of corporations. Make him an offer he can’t refuse has morphed into Model your business on Burger King trying to steal market share from McDonalds.
The fictional story Amini and Watkins have crafted borrows heavily from The Godfather, rerouted to contemporary London. Alex (Norton) is the son of an exiled Russian gangster, Dmitri (Aleksey Serebryakov), whose family fled to London for reasons that aren’t articulated but can’t be great. Alex’s mother, Oksana (Maria Shukshina), seeks solace for her homesickness in shopping; his sister, Katya (Faye Marsay), does the same in drink and drugs. They live in the kind of central-London apartments that a glut of oil barons and oligarchs have made unaffordable. Alex has tried to distance himself from the family business by pursuing a legitimate career in finance, while his girlfriend, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), works for a business leader and self-professed “caring capitalist.”
There comes a moment in the first episode when Alex, spurred on by his naughty uncle Boris (David Dencik) makes a Bad Decision. And that catapults him into the world of Semiyon Kleiman (the estimable David Strathairn), a Russian-Israeli politician and gangster whose business encompasses counterfeit handbags in Prague, heroin smuggling in Mumbai, and a whole lot in between. Alex starts spending more and more time on “business” trips in Tel Aviv and Eastern Europe, providing stunning visual fodder for the show (which appears to have made the most of its staggering budget) but awaking Rebecca’s suspicions. With each decision he makes, he sinks deeper and deeper into the underworld.
The problem with McMafia is that it never really sells the appeal of the criminal lifestyle for a Harvard-educated banker who’s hardly lacking for cash. Norton plays Alex with such committed blankness that his rare outbursts of emotion are almost humorous. He’s best during the action set pieces, which create the propulsive tension the series sorely lacks. But he can’t convey the motivations of a character who doesn’t have any. Walter White and Michael Corleone were drawn to the dark side by a combination of familial obligations and fragile egos; Alex Godman seemingly becomes embroiled with the world’s criminal elite because it’s a rainy Tuesday and he’s got nothing else going on.
McMafia does offer some reasons for his ethical evolution, just not persuasive ones. And the more time it spends with his depressed and overprivileged family members, the less it has to get into the grist of Glenny’s book. The subject of corruption in Russia is, unremarkably, a timely one. And the real-life inspiration for one mobster, Vadim (Merab Ninidze), is reportedly a Ukrainian-born criminal with alleged ties to Paul Manafort. But McMafia shirks the subject of how the demise of the Soviet Union led to ferocious, sprawling new crime syndicates, and it ignores the real-world consequences of Alex’s decisions altogether. One plotline in the second episode that portrays the horror of sex trafficking shows what the show could have been given a larger scope, but it’s swiftly abandoned for more sequences of Dmitri bemoaning his wounded masculinity or Alex lying to Rebecca and staring moodily out of a window.
The producers of McMafia were presumably hoping for a hit in the vein of The Night Manager, the 2016 John le Carré adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie about a man who gets swept up in the world of an arms dealer. That series similarly swanned its way through billionaire’s playgrounds and ethical Catch-22s. But it also allowed you to glimpse the allure of the extra-legal lifestyle. McMafia, by contrast, is a montage of austere mob bosses doing terrible things with minimal enthusiasm, and at great cost to the loved ones they insist they’re trying to protect. If nothing else, it all makes the humble 9-to-5 look a lot more appealing.