The Problem With 'McMafia' (No, It's Not anti-Semitism)

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'McMafia.'Credit: IMDb

The thing that shocked me the most when I moved to Israel a decade ago was the country’s flourishing organized crime scene. I mean, who knew anything in Israel was organized? And yet, organized it most definitely is: The Israel Police estimate that Russian Israelis laundered anything between $5 billion and $10 billion through the Israeli banking system in the 15 years following the fall of communism; Israeli crime syndicates have long been prominent in diamond and Ecstasy trafficking; and sex trafficking was rife through the country’s southern border with Egypt for many years.

Israel clearly merited (for want of a better word) its own chapter in Misha Glenny’s “McMafia: Seriously Organized Crime,” his 2008 nonfiction book about the global phenomenon.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Israeli characters would feature prominently in the new BBC adaptation of that book. If you’ve heard about “McMafia” the show (now available in Israel on Amazon Prime Video, and premiering on AMC in the United States next month), chances are it’s because the eight-part thriller was slammed in its native United Kingdom earlier this month by a lawyers’ association labeling it anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. Well, I’m four episodes in, and whatever the show’s flaws, these aren’t part of the problem.

I had very high hopes for this series. After all, the changing nature of crime into something that is increasingly committed with the push of a button, the blurring of the criminal and law-abiding worlds, and the rapid growth of the shadow (or black) economy are some of the defining characteristics of our age.

But here’s the thing. “McMafia” the book is a grim read: When caviar smuggling and heating oil scandals are the lightweight, throwaway elements, and when your book offers tips on which nationality to hire if you ever need an assassin (Serb, apparently), it clearly doesn’t belong in your local bookstore’s humor section.

Yet despite the book’s inherent darkness, “McMafia” the series seems to have been seduced by the idea of becoming this year’s “The Night Manager” – the 2016 John LeCarré BBC-AMC adaptation that gave us exotic locations, a charismatic good guy, an even more charismatic arms-dealer bad guy, a conflicted love interest and a quirky secret service agent.

So while “McMafia” is certainly watchable, it’s also far too glossy for the subject matter and in thrall to picturesque locations. (It’s also true that the show does have one Israel problem – its lousy attempts to pass off what I assume is Croatia as Tel Aviv and Eilat. A tip for the producers: If you want to make your beach look like Tel Aviv’s, don’t choose a stony one and make sure you have at least 132 people playing matkot in a very confined space.) The tone is just wrong for the material – like turning the Warren Commission report into a musical.

The story revolves around the fictional Godmans, a wealthy Russian-Jewish family exiled in London. Son Alex (James Norton – best known for playing the nemesis in “Happy Valley”) is a privately educated late-twentysomething whose job involves sitting at a large desk, staring at graphical representations of share prices and clicking a mouse occasionally (it’s what financiers do in the City, apparently). His parents, meanwhile, seem to have wandered in from some West End production of Chekhov: Doleful dad and ex-Mafiosi Dimitri (Aleksey Serebryakov – also the star of the Russian version of “House”) feeds the birds in Hyde Park and dreams of going home to Mother Russia, while mom Oksana (Maria Shukshina, who steals her scenes with an effortlessness any real-life criminal would admire) must suffer her moribund partner’s somber moods.

Not kosher

Then there’s Uncle Boris (David Dencik), who is clearly the life and soul of the party because he is never without a drink that is at least 70 percent proof and is always referred to as “Uncle Boris” – though he prefers to bill himself, somewhat bizarrely, as Alex’s “Yiddishe Momma.” He is also clearly up to no good and wants his nephew to work with an Israeli businessman, Semiyon Kleiman – played by the American actor David Strathairn, who was probably nobody’s first choice to play a Russian-Israeli shipping magnate-turned-politician, but does an OK job with this enigmatic character. (For a supposed member of the Knesset, though, Kleiman appears to go on even more overseas trips than Israel’s current prime minister.)

Kleiman makes Alex an offer he can’t refuse, if we’re going to have a series set in the world of organized crime, and it’s not giving much away to say the two men embark on a business proposition that is most definitely not kosher: Sabotaging the evil empire of a Russian kingpin, Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze – Georgia’s answer to James Nesbitt), who operates more rackets than Maria Sharapova, in such places as Prague and Mumbai (I found the scenes in the latter the show’s most engaging).

“Why is McDonald’s more successful than Burger King?” Kleiman grills Alex early on. “One reason: there are more of them. I want to expand my franchise in Europe, Asia, Africa. Everywhere there is a McDonald’s, I want to build two Burger Kings,” he declares, striking fear into the hearts of dieticians everywhere.

When Alex plays hard to get and notes that he’s a banker, not a gangster (amazingly, he says this without any trace of irony), Kleiman responds, “All I need is a banker. These wars are fought in the boardroom, not on the street. Moving money is your weapon.”

Let’s be honest, that’s not much of a super power, and the show’s biggest problem is that Norton’s Alex is a particularly bland protagonist. In fact, he may be one of the dullest people on TV, a televisual black hole sucking the life out of every scene. The same applies to his glamorous (of course) girlfriend, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance, stepdaughter of actor Mark Rylance), an “ethical capitalist” who works for an American dubbed “the only honest banker left in the world” – which presumably means lots of skeletons will come tumbling out of his particular closet by the final episode.

The show, co-created and co-written by Academy Award nominee Hossein Amini (“Drive”), also has an annoying device in which scenes are juxtaposed that are meant to mirror each other – so, for example, we get two separate falls from a height; a speech on business ethics while an opulent soirée takes place at the Palace of Versailles; two separate trips abroad with loved ones. It’s hard to know who’s been more bludgeoned by the end of each episode, the viewer or some of the victims.

I’ll certainly watch the final four episodes, but at the halfway stage “McMafia” appears to be a missed opportunity. What could have been a brutal but honest look at a global epidemic (like, say, the 1989 drugs series “Traffik,” or even its Steven Soderbergh movie remake) instead feels like the adaptation of an average airport novel. Despite a couple of very violent scenes, it’s generally watered down and too keen to pander to a prime-time audience. And while elements from Glenny’s book do make it to the screen – there’s a particularly shocking trafficking scene in the Negev based on an actual eyewitness account – there is way too much time spent with the dreary Godman family. And that really is a crime.