Do mod­ern crim­i­nals make for bor­ing TV?

The Sunday Telegraph - - Arts - MICHAEL HO­GAN

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

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