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‘McMafia’ Has Some Tips on How to Update a Cold War Story for Modern Times

The crime drama doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it knows how to have fun

James Norton wearing a tuxedo in ‘McMafia’ BBC/AMC/Ringer illustration

AMC knows a good thing when it has it. This time last year, the premium cable network began its six-week run of The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation coproduced with the BBC that put Dr. House and Loki on a very photogenic collision course (and, in lead actor Tom Hiddleston’s case, a de facto James Bond tryout). The Bond effort may not have worked out for unrelated tank top/corny acceptance speech reasons, but the slick international crime thriller sure did. The Night Manager won awards, leading AMC and the BBC to order a second season of the supposedly limited series. Then, the two networks announced they were teaming up once more on yet another le Carré property: The Little Drummer Girl, starring Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard, and Michael Shannon, and directed by The Handmaiden’s Park Chan-wook.

Before either of those projects has come to fruition, though, this week brings the stateside arrival of McMafia, which expands AMC’s solidifying lane beyond the letter of le Carré while preserving the spirit of the moody, location-hopping survey of a criminal network that transcends silly constructs like borders. Like The Night Manager, McMafia is a finite (for now) miniseries with a single director—James Watkins, who cocreated the show with Hossein Amini. Like The Night Manager, McMafia is a product of the book-to-screen conveyor belt, working off of journalist Misha Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, originally published in 2008. And like The Night Manager, McMafia uses a stuffy upper-class Brit as an audience surrogate to ease the viewer into a world where every spectacular mansion has a skeleton in its closet, or more likely, several.

McMafia picks up on what The Night Manager started and solidifies its slick, addictive appeal into a reusable template. The result is a highly entertaining watch that wears its budget on its impeccably tailored sleeve—the kind of turn-your-brain-off-but-still-feel-smart-because-the-credits-sequence-has-a-lot-of-fancy-looking-financial-charts-in-it show the rest of prestige television is palpably short on right now. Between the challenging structural inversion of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and the R-rated This Is Us redux of Here and Now, McMafia charts a middle course of briskly paced fun that feels good to watch without being too feel-good. Along the way, it offers some replicable pointers for how to update a retro genre forever bound to the Cold War for 2018. Starting with:

Update Your Source Material

Le Carré’s Night Manager novel was set in the immediate shadow of the Soviet Union, and the series had to adjust the geopolitical dynamics at play for 2016. McMafia faces an even tougher challenge: taking a dense patchwork of nonfiction anecdotes and grafting a compelling narrative through-line onto a scattered reality. The series follows the organized-crime network enabled by the fall of the Soviet Union and the deregulation of the global financial system, both of which created twin power vacuums that facilitated the rise of a Russian oligarch class with a nebulous connection to the state. The sprawling account encompasses everything from human trafficking to high finance in locales ranging from London to Dubai. McMafia wants to show that our interconnected world means that crime, and criminals, are no longer anchored to a single place or industry, a theme that makes for a fascinating thesis but a potentially unmanageable story.

To cut through the confusion, McMafia uses a straightforward family-revenge plot as its guiding structure. James Norton plays Alex Godman, the son of an exiled Russian Jewish businessman who’s been thoroughly Anglicized by a life spent in moneyed Britain. Alex feels weighed down by the assumption that wealthy Russians are uniformly tacky crooks, so he’s built a straight-and-narrow financial firm without his father’s help and partnered up with a WASP-y British girlfriend to help him assimilate. All that progress gets swiftly undone when Alex’s beloved uncle Boris (David Dencik) is murdered in front of him. A distraught and angry Alex subsequently teams up with Boris’s shady Israeli Russian associate, Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn), in an attempt to take down Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), the man behind Boris’s death and the Godmans’ original exile all those years ago.

Anyone who’s so much as skimmed a Breaking Bad recap knows what happens next: Alex gets drawn deeper and deeper into the life he’d worked so hard to distance himself from. Alex’s arc nonetheless provides an effective bridge between McMafia’s setting, provided by Ezra Levy, and the world of serialized television.

Make the World Feel Like Ours

One of the greatest problems facing crime and espionage fiction is that the ecosystem that gave rise to it is no longer recognizable to a post–Berlin Wall world. Some masterworks, like The Sopranos, use this fact to their advantage and center their characters’ sense of existence outside their given time and place. (“I feel like I came in at the end of something,” Tony famously tells his therapist in the pilot.) Other shows, like the more recent Counterpart, use supernatural means to revive the two-sides-at-cross-purposes setup that hasn’t defined the world stage for more than 30 years.

McMafia, though, feels purely contemporary. Last year, BuzzFeed News ran a terrifyingly comprehensive investigation detailing a series of deaths on British soil that U.S. intelligence agencies say were assassinations carried out by Russian agents, with the British government powerless to stop them. McMafia’s action bears such a close resemblance to the events outlined in the report, right down to the preposterously excessive mansion in Surrey where Boris meets his end, that I would’ve guessed Watkins and Amini had optioned it if they hadn’t already been working from a journalistic source. Other details strike close to home, too: Alex’s parents’ London apartment, which appears to share an interior decorator with Trump Tower; the strenuously clueless younger generation, including Alex and Vadim’s daughter, who reminded me of the people with whom I went to college who would answer an icebreaker like, “Where are you from?,” with an offhand, “… it’s complicated.”

Essentially, McMafia offsets its more escapist elements with a believable setting that feels rooted in criminality as it exists today, not in stereotypes. And let no one say McMafia isn’t afraid to get escapist.

Big Little Lies Doesn’t Have a Monopoly on House Porn

There’s an entire section in my McMafia notes dedicated to the show’s widespread locations, which Watkins takes crucial time to display via copious establishing shots. An incomplete list includes London, Paris (Versailles, to be precise), Dubai, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Mumbai, Prague, the south of France, and the Cayman Islands. McMafia is well aware that its characters’ business-travel itinerary bears an awfully close resemblance to the average person’s ideal vacation, and plans its glitz accordingly.

In other words, even masculine-skewing genres like crime aren’t exempt from the real estate eye candy more traditionally associated with highbrow soaps like Big Little Lies. Yes, there’s an extra frisson of excitement afforded by the knowledge that those gorgeous seaside views come with a prisoner chained up in a dungeon—but the bulk of the appeal still comes from the wealth, not its nefarious origins. Much like its protagonist, McMafia is as much seduced by the criminals it depicts as it is appalled by their actions, and while that tension compromises Alex, it just renders the audience entertained.

When in Doubt, Throw in a Rylance

Norton is more than slightly miscast as Alex, hewing so faithfully to the naturalized-posh-Brit side of Alex’s split identity that he looks borderline preposterous when it’s time to break out the yarmulkes for Boris’s funeral. Luckily, he’s surrounded by an accomplished supporting cast of character actors, both British and American. (As any Game of Thrones fan can tell you, trained professionals who know their Shakespeare also know how to sell the viewer on a less overt kind of fantasy.)

McMafia’s answer to Hugh Laurie in The Night Manager is Strathairn, whose Kleiman is a shipping magnate turned Knesset minister by day and a terrifying mafia don by night. Despite a cartoonish accent, Strathairn has the necessary charm and menace to embody Kleiman’s charisma. Meanwhile, McMafia pulls from one of the U.K.’s most prestigious acting families for the role of Alex’s girlfriend, Rebecca: Juliet Rylance, the stepdaughter of Dunkirk and Bridge of Spies star Mark. On the page, Rebecca’s something of a wet blanket, stuck in permanent angel-on-the-shoulder mode; she’s a constant spokeswoman for so-called ethical capitalism, the right-hand woman of a Warren Buffett–like American billionaire convinced the free market can make the world a better place. Rylance renders her warm, sympathetic, and most importantly, more than a symbol for Alex’s aspirations. And as Alex’s depressive father, Aleksey Serebryakov is equal parts pitiable and pathetic.

Transportive entertainment can be just as hard to pull off as high drama. Fortunately, McMafia has assembled the necessary components to do just that—and with more British American crime capers in the offing, it provides reassurance that AMC can dependably deliver in this genre. Watkins and Amini have delivered a show that’s entirely satisfying on its own, but I’d be lying if it didn’t make me even more curious about what Chan-wook has in store.