5 reasons McMafia still isn’t working for me

Five episodes in, James Norton's drama still hasn't found its stride, says Susanna Lazarus

McMafia, BBC Pictures, SL

The BBC clearly had high hopes for McMafia. The new drama was launched in a prime time slot – 9pm, New Year’s Day – and boasts the talents of hot young star James Norton. Add to that a huge budget and a tour of glamorous locations and you have the perfect remedy for a pacy thriller to hit the dizzy heights of 2016’s The Night Manager.

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But where the Tom Hiddleston drama went from strength to strength, McMafia has stalled and spluttered. Last Sunday’s episode – the series’ midway point – brought in just 3.5 million overnight viewers, a smidge of the Night Manager’s 6 million at the same stage.

With its fifth instalment, McMafia finally began to crank up a gear thanks to some shock shootings and a sinister twist. But it’s still making crucial mistakes – shortcomings it needs to fix if it hopes to hang on to its declining audience.

1. The baddies

Vadim Kalyagin, BBC Pictures, SL
Vadim Kalyagin, BBC Pictures, SL

Call it pantomime-y, but Hugh Laurie’s performance in The Night Manager gave the series its dramatic core – everything ticked around his enigmatic villain, Richard Roper. McMafia is more of a shark tank, but neither Vadim nor Semiyon Kleiman have the same bite. Vadim is nefarious, for sure – that brutal scene on the railway tracks proved as much – but the bulk of his interaction is done from afar, locked away in rooms discussing his business rivals. We know what he’s capable of, but now he’s aware of what Alex is up to, the drama would only benefit from this arch villain reminding us just how scary he can be.

Meanwhile, Semiyon Kleiman has more money than sense and often looks out of his depth. Even James Norton’s criminal novice Alex Godman has run circles around him, digging him out of trouble in Prague and eventually wriggling free from his stranglehold on the fund. We keep on hearing how dangerous Semiyon is, but five episodes in – we’re yet to see just what he is capable of.

2. Alex’s blurry motive

Alex Godman, BBC Pictures, SL
Alex Godman, BBC Pictures, SL

In episode five, Alex was given the chance to walk away. With Semiyon under investigation and headed for a long spell behind bars, even Antonio pointed out to the banker the opportunity he’d been given. But Alex decided to press on, working to clear Semiyon’s name so that he could force him into working with the Mexicans. At the start of this series, it felt like squeaky clean Alex was being coerced into entering this criminal underworld – reluctantly accepting Semiyon’s money in order to save his fund, rather than actively pursuing revenge for his uncle. Now we’re led to believe that it’s Boris’s death that is motivating him. Or his own greed, as Semiyon suggests? It’s never made clear. Which makes Alex, as a character, hard to root for.

3. Numbers just aren’t interesting

James Norton, BBC Pictures, SL
James Norton, BBC Pictures, SL

It’s tricky to make good dramas about computers. For every Social Network, there’s a Fifth Estate. In McMafia, many of Alex’s biggest decisions come when his mouse is hovering over a button on a screen. “Moving money is your weapon. You can sit behind your desk anywhere in the world and still bring down the man who killed your uncle,” Semiyon told him in episode one. The problem is, it doesn’t exactly make for scintillating telly.

4. What about the female characters?

McMafia, BBC Pictures, SL
McMafia, BBC Pictures, SL

We hear a lot about under-developed female characters on screen. The frustrating thing with McMafia is it’s actually given us some decent women with intriguing storylines. Lyudmilla (played by Sofia Lebedeva) got a little more air time in episode five but her storyline feels deserving of more – a Russian beautician kidnapped, trafficked and blackmailed into serving Semiyon is far more exciting than Alex’s number crunching. Meanwhile, Mariya Shukshina, who plays Alex’s mother Oksana, was scorchingly good when she uncovered her husband’s affair, but her part in the storyline has disappeared entirely. And Faye Marsay has had remarkably little to do as Katya – Alex’s wayward sister – although hopefully that will change now she knows about her father’s infidelity. McMafia has done the hard work of creating its complex women but to reap the rewards it needs to give them more to do.

5. James Norton is just a bit meh

James Norton, BBC Pictures, SL
James Norton, BBC Pictures, SL
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I’m a big fan of James Norton – I still wheel out his performance in Happy Valley whenever anyone suggests he’s a bad actor. But ever since he broke onto the scene as chilling Tommy Lee Royce, he’s become a bit predictable, playing posh toffs in Grantchester, War and Peace and now this.  I was blown away by his performance in Happy Valley – it set him up as one of the best young actors of his generation and showed that he could do, well, anything. It’s about time he took on another role of the same calibre – sadly, I don’t think this is it.