Do modern criminals make for boring TV?
Raise a glass of vodka and go in for a triple cheek-kiss (it’s the Russian way) because BBC drama McMafia reaches its climax tonight. After eight weeks of Eastern European mobsters, exclusive London addresses and international intrigue, it’s time for the final showdown. But does anyone care any more?
Much of the series, according to naysayers, has been like watching paint dry. Glossy, expensively produced paint, certainly, but paint nonetheless. When McMafia strode stylishly on to our screens on New Year’s Day, it attracted almost 10 million viewers. Last Sunday’s episode was watched by just
3.4 million. Those overnight figures should rise to around 5 million when catch-up is taken into account but still, it has steadily lost half its audience. So what has gone wrong?
Part of the problem has been that 21st-century misdeeds simply aren’t terribly visual. McMafia takes place in a world of computerised, globalised crime. Kingpins run their empires like CEOs, remotely and dispassionately. Much of this activity takes place online, hence we’ve had rather too many shots of star James Norton clicking a mouse to move money between offshore accounts.
Both TV and cinema have long struggled to bring technology-based stories to life on screen. This has been the problem with narratives about computer hacking, cyber-stalking or financial fraud. There’s a reason why you probably don’t remember films such as Swordfish, Antitrust, Sneakers, The Net, Open Windows and The Fifth Estate. It’s because they were all awful. On TV, CSI: Cyber was the only part of the forensic franchise to flop, lasting just two series. Take CIA drama Homeland, too. Once its central cat-and-mouse game between agent Carrie Mathison and soldier-cumterrorist Nicholas Brody came to an end, subsequent series turned into a tapping-at-keyboards drama – all follow-the-financial irregularities, dark web snooping, DNA helixes spinning on screens and computer game-ified drone sequences. As a result, it’s gone from essential viewing to “Blimey, is Homeland still going?”
The tools of McMafia’s trade aren’t guns, they’re laptops. Unfortunately, though, typing isn’t as much fun to watch as The Professionals sliding across car bonnets, The Sweeney kicking down doors, or Cracker outwitting serial killers.
You knew where you were with old-school crime. Villains would pull off heists, kidnap innocents or commit other dastardly deeds. Coppers would crack a few skulls to get information and after the obligatory chase sequence, announce: “You’re nicked!”
But since the turn of the millennium and the rise of long-form boxset drama, the crime thriller formula has been endlessly tweaked and subverted. Instead of traditional cops and robbers, we’ve had The Wire’s painfully slow paper-pushing, Breaking Bad’s middle-aged men in meth labs and much moody Scandinavian moping.
For a brief while, 24 managed to make mouse-clicks thrilling. Line of Duty’s trademark is those long, wordy interrogation scenes. At its best, Sherlock has made thinking itself exciting, with deductions spoken aloud, while text messages and cryptic clues fly across the screen. McMafia hasn’t found a way to bring its own machinations to the same vivid visual life. The problem with white-collar criminals who rarely get their hands dirty is that dirtying hands is often the most entertaining part to watch.
When Norton’s character hasn’t been making glorified bank transfers, he’s been sitting in meetings – wearing suits, sipping water, talking to “contacts” and “associates” at poolsides, restaurants and airport lounges. The production hopped from the CÔte d’Azur to Tel Aviv, from Mumbai to Istanbul, but didn’t exploit these enviable locations enough.
It was a tough task to fictionalise journalist Misha Glenny’s hefty non-fiction book, McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, but perhaps series creators Hossein Amini and James Watkins didn’t take enough dramatic licence. They’ve arguably been too faithful to the source material, too much at pains to join the dots and show the workings of contemporary crimes. Less exposition and more explosions wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Meanwhile, Norton’s buttoned-up turn as inscrutable banker-turnedgangster Alex Godman was presumably a creative choice but hasn’t exactly added white-knuckle excitement.
The BBC’s previous globe-trotting thriller, The Night Manager, to which McMafia has been unfavourably compared, gripped the public imagination and retained its 10 million viewers from start to finish. McMafia has proved more of an acquired, Marmitey taste.
There are mitigating factors here. McMafia has been bold enough to try an international cast and subtitled scenes on prime-time TV. It hasn’t resorted to spicing things up with gratuitous sex scenes (which were the weakest parts of The Night Manager anyway). Let’s also remember it is an original story, rather than one adapted from a John le Carré novel.
Those who have kept watching McMafia have been rewarded with a complex, slow-burning thriller which gathered momentum as its plot threads were skilfully drawn together. It’s still been compelling and enjoyable, just a partially wasted opportunity. A good drama that had potential to be a great one.
Tonight’s finale cranks up the pace considerably. There are betrayals, bereavements, lots of guns and a long chase scene. Sadly, for many viewers, it will be too little, too late.
Marmitey: Maria Shukshina and James Norton in McMafia, which is set to go out with a bang tonight
Old school: John Thaw in The Sweeney, where actions spoke louder than words