‘McMafia’ Slowly Journeys Into a Grim Russian Underworld

Is the age of Robert Mueller dawning in TV and film? Just as Hollywood releases a big spy movie starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian seductress, here comes AMC with “McMafia,” a slow, visually enticing show about Russian oligarchs, gangsters and crooked bankers jetting around the world and causing mischief. The premise is interesting, the execution half-delivers. Left with very little to say about Russia or the mafia, the show takes itself a bit too seriously, lumbering along when it should have a little more fire in the belly. You almost have to remind yourself you’re watching a crime thriller, because the tone is more of a brooding family drama where the rich dine on caviar and uncles scheme how to launder some cash.

James Norton is British refinement as Alex Godman, the son of very wealthy Russian emigres in London who has made a name for himself in finance. His father Dimitri (Aleksey Serebryakov) chastises his children for speaking in English, demanding they speak to him in Russian, even if he was exiled from his homeland for undisclosed criminal activities. Alex’s uncle Boris (David Dencik) doesn’t mind basking in the decadence and opulence of living like Russian Corleones. But when Dimitri falls ill and a rival gangster also finds himself under threat, Alex is suddenly pulled into the underworld he has shied away from for years. Key to his induction is a Russian-Israeli named Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn), who quizzes Alex on how one goes about setting up offshore accounts and untraceable money wirings. At first Alex resists the pull, but when a bloody tragedy strikes home, he can’t help but give in. Kleiman makes it simple: He wants to be the McDonald’s of the crime world, and for now he is Burger King (his own words, dear reader).

“McMafia” is surely one of the season’s most visually alluring new shows. The budget was reportedly of impressive size, and so in the pilot alone the characters jet from London to Israel, with party scenes in Tel Aviv. The homes and mansions these characters inhabit are of such rich opulence that it’s no wonder living in London is about as pricey as finding a decent spot in Los Angeles. The cinematography has the kind of neon gloss similar to a show like “Mr. Robot,” where television drama achieves an almost arthouse cinema vibe. There is a great moment in the pilot where Alex and Semiyon meet atop a Tel Aviv rooftop as an air raid drill sends party goers underground. Lightning illuminates the clouds in the distance. It is probably the best scene in the entire episode because of the visual tension it combines with the dialogue, as Semiyon begins asking Alex to describe how he, as a banker, would set up a laundering operation.

Alas, if only the rest of the pilot could keep up that level of craft. “McMaster” is visually immersive but as a story it plays like the hipster thug life. Nothing much really happens in this show, all of the plot developments and transitions depend entirely on low-key conversations bogged down by cryptic, financial lingo. Maybe the problem lies in the choice of lead character. Alex is a prudish lead who sits stone-faced in most of his scenes, delivering lines with a detached coldness. There is not much tension in his dilemma because we wonder why he would even engage in crime to begin with. The man is already quite rich, even on his own he makes more than enough, so why not just let the other mafia family have whatever it is they want? It’s not even clear what underworld business the family is exactly involved in. The scenes where Alex and Boris jet set are not particularly compelling because we have no idea what the stakes are what makes this family worthy of our interest.

The show was co-created by Hossein Amini, who wrote the tense crime thriller “Drive,” and James Watkins, director of small horror titles like “Eden Lake.” Together they have made a show that is stylish but thinks it’s more metaphysical than it actually is. When a small meeting with caviar turns into a bloodbath where a man’s wrists are slowly cut open, you can’t suddenly just cut back to Alex’s girlfriend (Juliet Rylance) giving a long-winded speech about the need for “ethical capitalism.” We need a clear reason for wanting to follow these characters. Maybe if the show were about the actual rise of the Russian oligarchs following the collapse of the Soviet Union it would have more juice.

“McMafia” is a mob series in search of the mob. It has the feel and pace of a business meeting, when what it requires is the punch of laws being broken. It is not a failure, and its slick look convincingly creates a world for its story, but to survive in the current TV landscape, it needs to stop being like its main character and take more of a walk on the wild side.

McMafia” Season 1 premieres Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. ET and airs Mondays on AMC.