The eight-part drama “McMafia,” premiering Monday 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. Its business is almost all personal.
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.
That it is long and slow is not in itself a problem; “Rubicon,” which ran on AMC in 2010, set the gold standard for effective, appropriate slowness. And there are enough sequences that break a sweat to call “McMafia” at least occasionally a thriller. The larger set pieces feel reasonably well populated and a computer-assisted heist (those shipping containers, mentioned above), accomplished by minor but vividly portrayed characters, is more convincing than such sequences usually are.
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), adding human trafficking to the drug business — most of the main characters are bad people doing bad things for bad reasons.
Admittedly, I have less taste than many for shows whose protagonists are, you know, creeps. After a couple of seasons of “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad,” I was quite ready for Tony and Walter to get their just desserts. The “Godfather” movies are great works of American art I may never watch again. Indeed, there is a little of Michael Corleone in Alex Godman.
There is something undeniably appealing in Alex’s nearly unflappable sangfroid — dressed in a tuxedo for a party at Versailles he might be the next James Bond — 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, and maybe he is and maybe he isn’t, but he does make some poor choices on the way to filling up eight hours of television.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd