Life in the Naples Mafia (the Camorra) is nasty, brutish, short – and nothing like Goodfellas. Even when you’ve made your millions from the drugs trade, there’s nothing to spend it on save your fleet of armoured 4 x 4s and your gilded cage in some bleak, rundown suburb which it’s never safe to leave because you’ll only end up arrested or shot.
Spoiler alert: almost everyone dies over the four seasons of this mesmerisingly bleak, moodily soundtracked, fabulously compulsive drama. But though it’s immensely depressing and quite shockingly violent – it has been described as the series ‘where characters die before they become characters’ – it’s also just about the most brilliant thing on TV. The characters are so well drawn and involving that you’ll find yourself rooting for them even as they do the most terrible things; the plot is Shakespearean in its sweep, drama and complexity; and the ruthlessness of its integrity (wickedness goes unpunished; no one is saved) takes the breath away.
Suburra: Blood on Rome (Netflix)
Suburra is like Gomorrah relocated Rome: even to the point of having near-identical sinister, unsmiling, ultra-low-key mob bosses (Samurai is the very spit of Pietro Savastano). But it’s less monochrome (the fabulous orgy scene at the beginning looks like something from Paolo Sorrentino’s lush La Grande Belezza) and a lot more kitsch, notably the fantastically bling, devious and oddly adorable gipsy gangster family the Sintis and their camp, smiley, closeted gay son Spadino. Highly recommended, though season two isn’t a patch on season one.
Before Suburra the series came Stefano Sollima’s 2015 neo-noir movie, covering much the same territory – political corruption, Vatican complicity, dodgy developments in the seaside suburb of Ostia, spivvy gipsies, middle-class-boys-turned bad, the lurking presence of the Mafia permeating everything. It’s good but only watch it after you’ve seen the TV series (which is a prequel): otherwise you’ll know who dies.
As Milton found with Paradise Lost, the devil has all the best tunes. It’s why, even though this cocaine-gangs-in-Colombia true-life drama is narrated from the point of view of Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, the guy you’re rooting for most of the time is the charming but outrageously brutal drugs king Pablo Escobar, as he uses his stupendous fortune, his network of mansions (one in the jungle with a massive private zoo) and his private army to outwit, elude and murder the feds. Though it lasts three seasons, it loses its way at the end of season two once – spoiler alert! – Escobar finally runs out of luck.
Narcos Mexico (Netflix)
Like Narcos, only set in Mexico, this recounts the several rises and falls of drugs baron Felix Gallardo. In real life he was no doubt a complete bastard but here he comes across almost as a Robin Hood figure trying to do his best by his community, first by growing the best marijuana (sinsemilla), later moving on to more lucrative (and violence-attracting) cocaine. The earnest DEA agents (see above) are a bore, but it’s not them you watch for: it’s the party scenes, and the tense face-offs and the epic shoot-outs like the one in the weed plantation. With its Mexico offshoot the Narcos franchise really hit its stride: more expansive, a better curated soundtrack, more lovingly styled set-pieces. More violence too – so don’t watch if you get upset by seeing men squashed to death by steamrollers.
The Irishman (Netflix)
Martin Scorsese has got the band back together – Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino – but after this creaky snoozefest you’ll wish he hadn’t. It’s such a shame, because there are echoes in this drama of all mob classics you loved from the Godfather series to Casino. But compared with the much pacier, more edgy foreign language series above, it just feels like analogue competing with digital. What especially doesn’t work is the ‘de-ageing’ technology, which exhausted a good chunk of the $140 million plus budget (not a good deal for Netflix). It’s supposed to make the stars look young. But not in the fight scenes it doesn’t. When ‘young’ De Niro kicks a shopkeeper’s head in, you fear he’s going to keel over and die of exhaustion.
The Sopranos (Amazon Prime Video; Sky Box Sets)
If you’ve never seen this masterpiece, you’ll need to set aside 86 hours of life – but it won’t be wasted. It debuted in January 1999 and still sets the bar for Mafia dramas and bingeworthy boxed sets. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a New Jersey mobster with anxiety issues; when not undergoing therapy with the lubricious Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), or hanging with his adorably evil crew at the Bada Bing strip club (which doubles as his office), he is trying as best he can to live a normal family life with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and teenage kids. Extreme violence is always just around the corner. It’s perfect in every way.