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Pulp masquerading as prestige, Netflix’s new drama Ozark is four or five different shows doing battle at once — generally in the most familiar of moody and murky cable crime veins — but with a couple interesting characterizations and twists if you’re willing to focus in a way the show rarely is prepared to do itself.
Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is a Chicago financial advisor laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel under the watchful eye of the vicious Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales). When Del discovers Marty’s partner has been skimming, things get violent and Marty makes a last-ditch plea to move the operation to Lake of the Ozarks, where he bluffs that there will be less regulation and more disposable cash to move around.
Air date: Jul 21, 2017
This desperate uprooting to a resort he’s never visited doesn’t play well with Marty’s unfaithful wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), or his kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner). In the Ozarks, Marty struggles to cozy up to lodge owner Rachel (Jordana Spiro) and the threatening proprietor of the local strip club, while the forces lined up against him include a rogue FBI agent (Jason Butler Harner’s Roy Petty), a local pastor (Michael Mosley), the region’s established kingpin (Peter Mullan, forcing comparisons to Cinemax’s similar-but-superior Quarry) and a family of petty criminals fronted by 19-year-old Ruth (Julia Garner), who see Marty and his suitcases of money as an opportunity to make a big score.
At one point, preoccupied with several intersecting storylines, the Byrdes forget about Jonah in a bus depot and he’s shockingly understanding.
“It’s OK. There’s a lot going on,” he says. Viewers are likely to be less charitable, as long stretches go by in which the writers seem to forget about three or four major characters and longer periods in which characters seem to forget about the complications that were supposed to be giving the show its urgency. Del, for example, is really anxious to get his money back at certain points and weirdly disinterested at others. Agent Petty, for another example, must have the most understanding FBI bosses imaginable, given his glacial progress on an investigation that’s at least three degrees of separation away from being a worthwhile case.
Created by Bill Dubuque, who blended financial services and more aggressive misconduct in last year’s Ben Affleck thriller The Accountant, Ozark has elements of the regional thriller/country noir novels of an Elmore Leonard or Daniel Woodrell, but it has shockingly little fun with any of its genre trappings. And, despite an antihero prone to fast-talking and sarcasm played by a comedically dexterous leading man, there’s very little humor, even of the pitch-black sort. Showrunner Chris Mundy worked on AMC’s Low Winter Sun, an adaptation so full of cable-drama stereotypes it was mocked on The Good Wife, so perhaps it was inevitable that as episodes progress, there’s a torture-and-misery-filled nihilism to Ozark so total that it’s hard for any personality to escape.
In addition to starring, Bateman directed much of the 10-episode first season and he’s pitched both his own performance and the show’s overall tone in a direction that’s more morose and introspective than was necessarily required. Ozark isn’t quite Bateman’s Flaked, but Netflix is surely amenable to enabling its Arrested Development stars’ mopier instincts between seasons. One can certainly admire Bateman’s commitment to Marty’s depression and the consistency of vision according to which most of the other actors are similarly gloomy, but there’s a distinct lack of emotional and visual variation to a show in which everything is shot in dour shades and there’s scarcely any color to be found anywhere. Lake of the Ozarks is such a unique setting for a show of this type that it’s disappointing how underdeveloped its geography turns out to be. Whether that’s a limitation of actually filming outside of Atlanta or a reflection of characters struggling to feel at home in their new surroundings may depend on your perspective.
The failure to really flesh out Lake of the Ozarks as a location also gets in the way of what should probably be an examination of the American Dream in 2017. Ozark has very little engagement with the way the Missouri resort economy operates or why it’s such a good (or bad) place to explore the manipulation of wealth in an increasingly deregulated nation. Dubuque is definitely interested in the process of money laundering, but only in a mechanical and non-specific way, and the selling of Marty Byrde’s soul is too much of an afterthought to make him interesting.
The men have the roles of surface authority in Ozark and with Bateman, Morales and Harris Yulin leading the way, they’re all solid, but almost all affection for Ozark will probably be directed at the female characters, who hold most of the show’s power. Spiro gives interesting shading to a frustratingly underwritten role, and Lisa Emery steals several scenes as a backwoods matriarch eager to prove that rednecks and hillbillies aren’t interchangeable. It takes an episode or two to understand what attracted someone of Linney’s stature to a character the show initially seems to be sneering at, but she’s good enough to gradually make you realize how conflicted this woman is toward her husband and this new life. She also benefits tremendously from a flashback episode which, otherwise, comes exactly late enough into the season to drain Ozark of all narrative momentum.
The best reason to watch Ozark is the rather spectacular Garner, previously best known for holding her own opposite Lily Tomlin in Grandma and breaking hearts as Kimmy on The Americans. Her performance makes Ruth the only character in Ozark you haven’t seen somewhere before, a mixture of misapplied cunning, amoral upbringing, buried vulnerability, accelerated maturity and inconvenient innocence. Trying to read into Ruth’s responses to each of the Byrdes, so different from her trailer park biological family, is fascinating, and it’s entertaining to watch the Ozark cinematographers playing around with Garner’s Little Orphan Annie ringlets and facial features that go from childlike to severe depending on the lighting.
Enough is happening in Ozark that it’s never boring, which sets it apart from Netflix’s recent misguided stab at prestige programming, Gypsy. Instead of being predictable, though, Ozark becomes monotonous. Part of that comes from the mundanity of Marty’s profession and skill set and part comes from a tentativeness to follow through on two big late twists that would have been equal parts alienating and audacious. It’s a show that takes itself suffocatingly seriously. Maybe it just needs a new focus. Ozark is Garner’s show — or at least it’s frustrating that, after the 10-episode first season, it hasn’t entirely become her show.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jordana Spiro, Jason Butler Harner, Esai Morales, Peter Mullan, Lisa Emery
Creator: Bill Dubuque
Showrunner: Chris Mundy
Premieres: Friday, July 21 (Netflix)
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