Friday, September 11, 2015

Narcos Season 1 Review

Being a sucker for South American politics (yes, it's a strangely specific interest but trust me, it's fascinating) I was drawn to Netflix's Narcos but even then I didn't expect such a fascinating show.

Narcos is the classic study of power corrupting that's been told many times by De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola but it feels fresh when this tale is transplanted to the leadership vacuum of Colombia.

Pablo Escobar isn't a Ray Liotta character who fell under the allure of crime and turned cold. Instead, Escobar was a man who grew up in an environment where evil was the norm and he just exploited it better than anyone else. Narcos makes the case that Columbia's drug empire was born out of a dog-eat-dog world.

Chance is also a key thru-line that runs through the series: It was through mere chance that a Chilean character known as "The Cockroach" survived a Chilean death squad and picked Pablo Escobar for his goldilocks qualities (not too murdery, not too soft) out of the three cartel chiefs in Medellin. It's through mere chance that neither Pablo nor Cali drug lord Pacho Herrerra escape bullet fire during various assassination attempts. It initially appears to be through foolishness that Justice Minister Lara gets assassinated (due to him opting against a bullet proof vest) but it appears the bullet would have hit him anyway. Power is obtained through smart maneuvering in this universe but also through luck of the draw.

Although Escobar fashions himself an anti-hero that seeks to help the poor, there's good reason to think the show doesn't expect us to buy that. Escobar is a destructive man and we're invested in stopping him. It's not a subversive commentary on the war on drugs here: There are characters in this story engaged in drug smuggling (the Cali cartel, the Ochoa brothers) who are not responsible for keeping an entire nation under terror with a constant threat of bombs, corruption, and mass murder.

With an evil mastermind front and center, the show packs in suspense as we await the catharsis of seeing the good guy win.

The show has gotten criticism for the blandness of its heroes but that's OK, because Kevin Murphy is simply an observer to a setting that is anything but bland. The characters that we have the most investment in are the series of government officials who are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to negotiating their way through terrorism tactics. That they're secondary and often tertiary in terms of screen time is inconsequential.

The show has gotten criticism for its narration but the critics should keep in mind that most prestige dramas have a slow burn. It generally takes a while to get into the action when the plots are so complex that they require two or three episodes of exposition. The socio-political scene in Narcos is no exception. While I agree that it's slightly cheap to tell rather than show, that's a small price to pay to get hooked immediately. Narcos is gripping from the first episode and not a lot of shows can lay that claim. 

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