Ozark is Compelling Second-Tier TV


Ozark, Netflix's new crime drama-thriller released this past summer, inhabits the genre somewhere between the streaming service's other two big crime drama-thrillers, Narcos and Bloodline. The storyline is never as slick and enthralling as that of Narcos, and the acting and cinematography only approach but never surpass that of Bloodline, but Ozark is still surprisingly capable and sometimes excellent. This is solid second-tier TV.

Ozark stars Jason Bateman, who also directs four of the ten episodes. Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago-based financial planner, husband, and father of two (Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner), who also works as an expert money launderer for Mexico's second largest drug cartel. Laura Linney plays his wife, Wendy, who (we learn in the first episode) is having an affair behind the back of her shrewd, distant workaholic husband.

When things go wrong (as they always do in crime dramas), Marty and his family are forced to relocate to the Lake of the Ozarks, a enormous, sprawling man-made lake and summer tourist destination in Missouri. The exact reasons for the move and the choice of destination are best discovered for yourself, but once in the Ozarks, Marty is forced to launder a huge sum of money under a tight deadline for the emissary (Esai Morales) of the Mexican drug cartel. Jason Butler Harner plays a shady FBI agent hoping to use the Byrdes to get to the cartel. The premise is pure high-concept, but the execution is more complex, subtle, and slow-burning than I had expected of Jason Bateman's turn to dark TV.

As I suggested above, the show's creators, Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, draw a lot on what's been working for Netflix's other shows.

Like Narcos, Ozark relishes the explaining of criminal operations to the viewer. In Narcos, Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal's DEA agents tell us the ins-and-outs of the cartel's operations while the show intercuts created visuals and file-footage. In Ozark, we often get voice-over narration of Bateman's Marty explaining how money laundering works. Other times, we hear what sounds like Marty passive-aggressively threatening someone with the intimate knowledge (or a forecast) of the person's operations, needs, and gameplan.  

However, Ozark diverts from Narcos in how it plays with voice-over narration, manipulating the viewer's expectations about how the narrative convention operates. I will avoid spoiling the show's fun with the details, but suffice to say that sometimes whom Marty is explaining things to is only revealed later on, and the revelation alters how we understand the information.

Like Bloodline, Ozark happily throws an apparently ordinary family into extreme duress, and then makes us watch them struggle and thrash as they try to keep their heads above water. Also like Bloodline, Ozark is thematically obsessed with exposing evil acts committed by ordinary people, and then slowly unthreading the consequences throughout the story. Both TV shows are excellent at revealing how an action and its motivations as well as its consequences are all intertwined with so many other affairs and events, and both shows work out these themes through flashbacks and other narrative devices. On the whole, Bloodline is more sophisticated than Ozark, albeit with the exception of Episode 8, the third last.

This episode, appropriately titled "Kaleidoscope," is the culmination of the show's play with narration as well as the high point of the season. The episode relates events 10 years prior, in 2007, setting up how the Byrdes' got themselves into the money laundering business. Doing so, the episode both clarifies and alters our perceptions of the characters, enriching our understanding of their motivations and revealing new undercurrents. I’m not sure if this episode comes at the right moment—to be fair, it's hard to say where this stand-alone episode comprised of a series of scrambled flashbacks would play best—but in any case it's remarkable. This is the series's most consistent foray into top-tier TV and, in my estimation, is one of the best episodes of any TV show I've seen this past year.

Also like Bloodline, Ozark is blessed with consistently strong acting across the cast. Bateman is very good, although he's essentially playing a more ruthless version of Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (a show Netflix picked up in recent years). Both characters spend most of their time trying to keep their family together and their finances afloat—running around, pushing through difficulties, and delivering platitudes about hard work and perseverance. Bateman plays a similar character (and turned in a similarly solid performance) in his earlier foray into dramatic film, The Gift (2015). All three of these performances suggest, however, that although Bateman is good at playing to his strengths, his range is severely limited.

Laura Linney gives what's perhaps the show's standout performance. It's a fascinating role, as her character is at turns weak and strong, likeable and annoying. Moreover, Linney's Wendy starts off fairly two-dimensional, but consistently grows each episode, in terms of both the character and for the viewer, and in a way that Marty does not.

Ruth (Julia Garner), the white-trash daughter of a criminal, is probably the biggest surprise. How she comes to play a central role in Marty's below-the-board operations is a pleasure to discover. 

Much more could be said about the shows setting and atmosphere, but for now I'll just briefly note the shades of the dirty, southern folk-noir of True Detective Season 1 or Justified Season 2. I found the episode's title cards, each with their own creepy combination of four objects/figures, to be particularly unsettling. And the Snells, a wealthy local hillbilly family, also conjure whiffs of the backwoods horror of True Detective. The show's palette, full of harsh dark blue and green, black, brown, and grey, recalls another notable Ozarks-set tale, Winter's Bone.

In the ways I've discussed above, Ozark can seem more like a skilful assembly of working parts than a truly original show, but if you've depleted the episode count of Netflix's powerhouses, Narcos and Bloodline, this should probably be next in your queue.

Ozark (Netflix, 2017)

Created by Bill Dubuque & Mark Williams; starring Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jason Butler Harner, and Esai Morales.