It’s been a big year for Russia.
Their Olympic team was barred from displaying its flag in a doping scandal; President Vladimir Putin won a totally unsurprising fourth term in office; his government’s involvement in U.S. President Donald Trump’s victory has overtaken the front pages of newspapers; and this unfolding Cold War–style drama, wherein it’s believed Russians poisoned a former spy and his daughter in Britain, has led to at least 150 Russian diplomats getting expelled from more than two dozen countries, including Canada.
And yet none of this seriously changes the West’s perspective of the former superpower, which has never been especially positive. A Pew Research Center survey from last summer found around just 34 per cent of people around the world held a favourable view of the country – in the United States and Canada, that number dropped below 30 per cent.
It’s an attitude with which the characters in McMafia, a miniseries airing on AMC, are begrudgingly familiar.
“It is embarrassing to be Russian these days,” laments Uncle Boris, the show’s gregarious bald-headed businessman, to his nephew, Alex Godman. “But don’t ever be ashamed of who you are.”
McMafia centres on the Godmans, a family of Jewish Russians who fled from their home country and settled in London, England. But the shadow of their Russian mob dealings followed them, and leading man Alex (James Norton) – a seemingly successful financial manager with a clean background – is reluctantly drawn in.
Watching a slippery descent into moral corruption has been the well-trodden territory of so many golden-era TV shows, from Breaking Bad (and its spinoff, Better Call Saul) to Orange Is the New Black and even Weeds. Like those shows’ stars, Alex’s whole personality shifts, starting from the moment he meets Semiyon Kleiman (the ever-smooth David Strathairn), a fellow Jewish-Russian expat who disguises his Mafia dealings with a successful shipping business. It’s the beginning of his mutation from regular dude to tragic antihero.
Well, sort of. Alex isn’t a particularly very compelling person to begin with – nor did I find McMafia a particularly compelling show. It offers a whirlwind of authentic sets and bursts of genuinely tense action, but to play TV critic for a moment, the title sucks, the lead actor is boring and the dialogue falls somewhere between hokey and stunted.
In one scene, Alex is sitting in a sexy Tel Aviv nightclub that is conspicuously quiet enough for a nearby woman to whisper probing questions and lean in for a kiss. When he leans away, she smiles and murmurs, after meeting him literally one minute ago, “God, what does it take to corrupt you?”
I mean, come on.
Production qualms aside, the Jewish community has been uproarious about their onscreen representation. The group UK Lawyers for Israel has publicly complained about how anti-Semitic Kleiman seems, noting that he misquotes the Mossad slogan to make them seem villainous, while the Russian-Jewish journalist Semyon Dovzhik has written how “some scenes had Jewish Russians in fits of laughter” (and there are no jokes in this show, believe me).
Meanwhile, my Moscow-born colleague here at The CJN enjoyed the show overall, but was less impressed with its blatant outsider’s perspective. She pointed out how weird it was that Alex’s suicidal father pines for his homeland – a yearning that sounds more like the nostalgia of an ethnic Russian rather than an exiled Jew.
It’s all a shame, too, because AMC’s timing was excellent. The show, a co-production with the BBC, aired in Europe in January and February, and its Canadian run will conclude this month.
In other words, they stumbled into a profoundly compelling time to analyze Russian politics – a cultural moment in Western culture lending an organic backdrop of intrigue and curiosity toward a seedy, exotic world of discretion and crime.
This isn’t that show. But if you’re looking for a quick crime-drama fix, or you’re a Russian Jew looking for a laugh, you may get a kick out of it anyway.