“McMafia” is a very serious show with a very silly title. While plenty of other series with maligned monickers have let their quality speak for them (“Trophy Wife,” “Cougar Town”), the most interesting thing about AMC’s new drama is the misleading and misguided origins of its title. A stock revenge story with a corporate hook that provides for the finished sheen of “prestige” television (expensive suits, fancy dresses, and lots of pretty people in pretty places), the first six episodes feature a handsome production filled with strong performances (most notably from the lead, James Norton). But there’s no fresh meat in this fine-looking burger… so the title remains the most compelling aspect to talk about.
First, since this is a review, here’s what you need to know about
“McMafia” the “Untitled David Strathairn TV Show.” This eight-part limited series focuses on a businessman, Alex Godman (Norton), who goes to war with a mobster, Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze). The good son in a problematic family, Alex has been running a hedge fund with transparency and moral fortitude. Only clean money from good people finds its way through a scrupulous vetting process — one made necessary by his family’s well-documented dark past.
Now, though, his name has finally caught up to him. Alex’s fund is in trouble, and he’s forced to seek advice from his family — namely, Uncle Boris (David Dencik). Without spoiling anything in the pilot, it’s safe to say things don’t go smoothly from there. Not only does Alex risk the integrity of a company built outside of his family’s shadow, but he does so for deeply personal reasons: He wants to destroy Vadim Kalyagin, starting with his thriving international (and illegal) businesses. To help him do that from the safety of his office desk, Alex turns to Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn), an Israeli citizen who built his semi-legitimate fortune in the shipping and entertainment industries.
To illustrate the contradiction (or lack thereof) between Alex and Vadim’s professions (the businessman and the mobster), “Untitled Mob Drama” uses brutal scenes depicting torture, murder, and the physical consequences of both, but those scenes — and nearly every other — also feature one or more characters in a suit. Gruesome moments can pop up at exotic hotels over fancy dinners, and the refined palates of each character’s public persona are meant to juxtapose the horrific nature of how they make their money.
That’s all well and good, except the glacial pace allows too much time to figure out what will happen next, as well as emphasizing a been there, done that feeling throughout. Obviously, Alex’s decision to get in bed with the very people he’s avoided all his life is a bad one. Obviously, it’s not going to go as smoothly as he thinks. Obviously, his family — both the bad ones and his totally innocent fiancee, Rebecca (played well by Juliet Rylance) — will get sucked into his dangerous new world.
All of these boxes get checked off one by one, and while Hossein Amini and James Watkins’ “Untitled Series Feat. David Strathairn in a Speedo” successfully shocks in small doses — there are tense scenes aplenty, including a lengthy heist of a shipping container that takes place on the docks — “Untitled and Unauthorized Follow-Up to ‘The Wire’ Season 2” is just another mob show in a long line of mob shows.
That is, except for its laughable title. One can only imagine the word “McMafia” is meant to cut through the show’s self-seriousness and invite the viewers to see the bigger picture: The mobsters have become businessmen and vice versa. While it’s easy to argue the opposite — that the title undercuts the story’s inherent drama — either interpretation assumes viewers can get past the title, so let’s examine what the name implies, sight unseen.
When you see the word “McMafia,” you think…
- …of the book by Misha Glenny. Congratulations! This is the best possible outcome. Though the full title of Glenny’s book is “McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld” — which is a far better title than just “McMafia” — it did inspire the series and AMC undoubtedly hopes fans of the 2008 non-fiction tome will want to see it brought to life onscreen. Is that a good reason to name your show “McMafia”? Of course not! Even if every reader tunes in, far more people haven’t read it (nor have they heard of it), and when they see previews, posters, or TV spots, they’ll think…
- …of the Irish mob. Close, but no cigar. While “McMafia” is about the mafia, the mobsters are Russian, making for quite a confusing association. And if you don’t think of the Irish mob, odds are you’ll think…
- …of McDonald’s. Ding ding ding! As insane as this may sound, the worldwide fast food joint is actually what inspired the title! There’s a rather insipid conversation near the end of the first episode about how McDonald’s beat out Burger King as the No. 1 chain restaurant, and that metaphor for how these two men will conquer Vadim’s mafia empire — which could have been about any franchise competing against any other franchise — is why the entire show rests under the label, “McMafia.”
No matter how you feel about “McMafia” as a title, it does illustrate what’s wrong with the show itself: If it were a McDonald’s product, it would be an Egg McMuffin. Bland but filling, it’s a breakfast sandwich sans any discernible flavor — no bacon, hot sauce, or even McGriddles (an adventurous disaster). It’s not good for you, but on the right day, it’ll get the job done. If that’s what you need, godspeed. Just pretend it’s called something else.
“McMafia” premieres February 26 at 10 p.m. on AMC.