'Narcos': TV Review

Netflix
Cuts through the clutter of so many biopics with a wider focus and deeper dive.

Netlfix's series does more than trace the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar — it portrays various people entangled in his larger-than-life story, on both sides of the law and around the globe.

The world doesn’t seem to lack for Pablo Escobar biopics, so it should come as no surprise that Netflix also gets in on the action with 10-part series Narcos, which separates itself from the pack with an impressive breadth and depth.

In many ways, this series could end up being the critically acclaimed international breakthrough for the streaming site that Marco Polo wasn’t (though it got a second season), partly because the writing, acting and directing are superior and it has a grittier and more grounded feel to it.

Those factors are essential, since there have been so many movies about the Colombian drug kingpin already and the series is coming into a very crowded drama landscape. What Narcos has going for it is that Escobar’s story is, on so many levels, so stunning and strange that the drama doesn’t have to be truncated or rushed, and the narrative can cover far more than just his rise and fall. In fact, Narcos is rumored to be well on its way to second-season renewal.

The series looks to have helped itself with an interesting and informative session at the recently wrapped Television Critics Association summer press tour. That’s where the series’ director, Jose Padilha, brought a rare enthusiasm and openness about the creative choices for the series, from its obviously Goodfellas-inspired narrative structure to its ability (because Netflix is available worldwide) to cast top-notch actors from around the globe — Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Peru — to embracing the concept of “magical realism” that Colombia is well known for.

Both Padilha and star Wagner Moura (who plays Escobar) are from Brazil, while co-stars Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) and Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl) are from Chile and the U.S., respectively.

It helps to know that Padilha’s Goodfellas-esque voiceover narration choice is an intentional nod, since the conceit is so prevalent in the Narcos episodes I've seen. “I, myself, loved Goodfellas, and there’s no reason for me to shy away from it,” Padilha said at TCA, adding that Brazilian movies have a history of using the device. Beyond that, Padilha said the voiceovers would help tell what amounts to a complex story featuring lots of interconnected characters as Narcos widens out the Escobar history to include many people around him.

Early on in the series it might seem like writers Chris Brancato and Samir Mehta perhaps embraced history a little too tightly, as the first hour opts for the global perspective in a very granular way — for example, focusing on how the United States embraced Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as a way to fight off communism and how Pinochet cracked down on Chile’s massive cocaine trade (but effectively moved it to Colombia).

With 10 hours to play with, Narcos indulges in a loping, book-like narrative cadence. That said, the series begins to find its pacing not long after, and we see the strength of Moura’s acting, which to his credit never races, in the early going, toward over-the-top menace or the drug-lord cliches we're all used to at this point.

Credit also the fact that Padilha brings a documentary feel to Narcos, often switching to archival images of the real Escobar or buildings and monuments in Colombia that played a part in the tale, then flashing back to Moura. 

Given the Escobar overload in pop culture, Narcos smartly concerns itself with telling the story from a number of perspectives, but with an overriding care to never depict Americans as the heroes – as the film makes clear, most of the deaths resulting from Escobar's reign were Colombian, as were many of the key people tracking him. Narcos also realizes that including the perspectives of real-life DEA agents Javier Pena (Pascal) and Steve Murphy (Holbrook) gives the material more relevance for viewers. (The actors met with both Pena and Murphy for their roles; Pena has described Escobar as the “founder of narcoterrorism”).

It’s a big slice, but as Narcos finds its rhythm — and viewers get acclimated to a more global story and that heavy use of voiceover — it credibly grows as a series and (yet another) good viewing option.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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