The eight-part drama “McMafia,” premiering Monday, Feb. 26, on AMC, is one of those productions that regularly wash up on our shores, with exotic locations and multinational casts involved in international skulduggery. The title, which comes from Misha Glenny’s 2008 nonfiction book, “McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld,” is explained within the series when a character compares the drug trade to a fast-food franchise: The one with the most locations wins.
But beyond that, the series, created by Hossein Amini and James Watkins, does not really go deeply into particulars, other than to offer some money-laundering montages, highlight the use of shipping containers and picture the enterprise as run by men in expensive suits speaking politely, often in nice restaurants or fancy parties.
Alex Godman (James Norton, the priest-detective in the “Masterpiece: Mystery” series “Grantchester”) is a Russian-born investment banker raised in British boarding schools and polished at Harvard. He has a small but successful firm he has been careful to keep apart from all things Russian or connected with his family, which has a criminal past.
Without going too much into spoilery detail, things occur that put Alex reluctantly in cahoots with Semiyon Kleiman, a drug-running Israeli politician (David Strathairn, oddly cast but not uninteresting), who is attempting surreptitiously to undermine his Russian rival, Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze). (That the Godmans, too, are Jewish, is expressed only by the men wearing yarmulkes at funerals, and Alex’s remembering being called a “Yid” at school.)
The unsuccessful target of an assassination attempt in one of the series’ early scenes, Vadim is also the reason the Godman family is in exile, which has left papa Dimitri (Aleksei Serebryakov) an extravagantly sorrowful drunk, dreaming only of the day he can safely return to Moscow. In the meantime, he has a dangerous habit of going up to the roof with a bottle of what I can only suppose is vodka, forcing his children to keep the windows locked. He is not particularly a candidate for your sympathy.
With scenes set in London; Tel Aviv; Moscow; Mumbai, India; Prague, Czech Republic; and Istanbul, Turkey, among other passing locations, the series does not lack for incidental glamour. (There is a yacht too.) At the same time, the photography, even in the action sequences, remains calm and naturalistic — it is, one might say, a matte finish approach, rather than a glossy one.
What’s difficult is caring what happens to most of these characters for any amount of time, given how much time there is — a task complicated by the fact the person you may be rooting for in one scene is the person you may have rooted against in the previous one, or will in the next. That they may love their children or friends — whose lives may be endangered by that love — may briefly soften a viewer’s heart. Some (Kirill Pirogov as a Russian security agent) get by on actorly charisma. But apart from the women — the wives, girlfriends, daughters and a kidnapped beautician (Sofia Lebedeva) — most of the main characters are bad people doing bad things for bad reasons.
There is something undeniably appealing in Alex’s nearly unflappable sang-froid and we are shown him training in hardcore martial arts to let us see that he is disciplined and plausibly capable of surviving an action scene or two. At the same time, Norton’s performance is so measured that whatever internal struggles Alex is experiencing on his journey through the dark side remain obscure to the viewer.
Alex believes he is working mainly to ensure the safety of his family and his fiancee, Rebecca Harper (Juliet Rylance), who works for an “ethical capitalist.” He is not even sure he is doing wrong, just moving money around — though he is sufficiently unsure to lie about it — and convinced in any case that it is only for a while. He thinks he’s in control, but he does make some poor choices on the way to filling up eight hours of television.