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Buried deep within Netflix’s Ozark is a show that I like very much.
It’s the one that focuses on Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore, and it’s the story of a young woman, brought up in a disreputable hillbilly family dominated by men, suddenly being offered the opportunity to become a kingpin herself, a chance she never admitted she wanted but a gig she discovers she’s spectacular at. On the brink of overcoming her family curse and taking control of the illegal enterprises in the region, she’s forced to choose between her petty criminal father, a newly arrived father figure with a background in more white-collar crime and the possibility that changing course and going legitimate might be the only opportunity to let her brilliant cousin have a better life for himself.
AIR DATE Aug 31, 2018
In the first season of Ozark, Ruth’s story was prioritized just enough for me to ignore that the focal narrative — accountant Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) uprooting his family from Chicago to Lake Ozark in Missouri as he struggled to launder enough money for a Mexican drug cartel to keep him alive — was a gloomy, monotonous prestige TV bore treated as if it were fresh and revelatory. I was able to respect how, especially in the second half of the season, Laura Linney’s Wendy Byrde became nearly as important as her husband and several other female characters, those played by Jordana Spiro and Lisa Emery, were also emerging as potent forces themselves.
It seemed possible after 10 episodes that Ozark was figuring itself out and that, after a bumpy and tonally confused first season, it might be ready to find its voice and actually become as good as the first season clearly thought it was. (The show’s small pile of Emmy nominations, including two directing mentions in a category in which The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire, The Deuce and Counterpart, among other shows, received none, seems to suggest many people already thought Ozark had arrived. This review probably isn’t for those people.)
If the first season of Ozark was manic, veering wildly in pacing and mood, the second season is just straight-out depressive and depressing. Life, even in its saddest and most bitter moments, has variation. The second season of Ozark, however, is a 10-episode slog of grinding narrative gears, ominous pronouncements about consequences, affectless violence and a monochromatic aesthetic that left me giggling at its miserable pretensions. The Ruth plotline remains a source of occasional enjoyment, and my bafflement that Emmy voters found Bateman worthy of an acting nomination and not Garner only grows, but even that story became bogged down in repetitive plotting and the show’s increasingly myopic interest in torture and empty, whispered threats.
As we start the second season, the Byrdes have narrowly escaped death at the ends of the cartel, a reprieve contingent on their successfully launching a new casino on Lake Ozark. That’s easier said than done, since it requires an uneasy truce with redneck heroin moguls Jacob (Peter Mullan) and Darlene (Lisa Emery) Snell. Then there’s the complicated process of getting legislative permission for the casino, with the help of uneasy bedfellow and wealthy conservative political fixer Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein, frustratingly forgettable in a frustratingly bland role). Helping push things along, and making at least 45 percent of the season’s threats — each, inevitably, followed by a character uttering some variation of “Is that a threat?” — is cartel attorney Helen, played with icy menace by Janet McTeer, who also popped up in the second season of Jessica Jones.
Causing drama on the homefront are Byrde children Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) and Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), who now know too much about their parents’ illicit business and start doing stupid things, especially Charlotte, who has now become one of those cable TV teens who only exist to behave illogically to move the plot along, a niche she wasn’t forced to fill in the first season.
Then there are the Langmores, with Ruth still trying to get Marty’s respect and coping with the release of her father (Trevor Long oozing one-note nastiness) and the potential exposure of several secrets she’s keeping from the first season.
The first season of Ozark was primarily about whether or not the Byrdes could extricate themselves from the cartel clutches and whether, despite a building body count, they were bad people, or just ordinary people who had gotten themselves in a bad mess. Although the second season is glutted with conversations about choices and diverging moral paths, it’s really more about awful people coming to terms with being awful people and learning to accept that the limitations they’ve set on their awfulness — killing people, child abduction, turning on the lights in their home etc. — are just artificial lines drawn in the sand.
And there’s nothing wrong with this being the theme to the second season! The problem is that showrunner Chris Mundy and a team of directors led by Bateman have lost some key elements that the first season possessed.
Gone is any sense that any of these characters are good at what they do. The first season wasn’t exactly a money-laundering how-to, but Marty’s quick thinking and Ruth’s quick learning provided bursts of inspiration. That Marty was spectacular at his job was what was keeping the Byrdes alive and also what was keeping my interest in lieu of sympathy or empathy for the family. In the second season, nobody is anything other than reactive. Marty does nothing smart or impressive in 10 episodes and part of that is absolutely intentional. He’s spread too thin and out of his element. Was it also intentional, though, for Bateman’s performance to become nothing but pursed lips and quizzical resignation? I’m doubtful. Ruth no longer seems exceptional either, even if Garner is the only castmember whose every line-reading feels alive. The new innovative force is supposed to be Linney’s Wendy, but for all of the praise she gets as a political operative with a Chicago machine background, nothing she does is more notable than rudimentary blackmail, which undermines the show’s “This season is about female agency!” ethos (the show’s relative paucity of female writers and directors does the same). Darnit, Ozark why are you making me say that I miss the detailed depiction of forensic accounting?
Gone is any sense of narrative creativity. One of the most praised episodes in the first season was the flashback episode that gave Linney her best showcase. Would the writers feel emboldened to do more of that in the second season? No. Flashbacks are really only used at the beginning of one episode and to negligible purpose. Another episode starts with a totally inept attempt to mimic the backwards storytelling of a Memento (or Cinemax’s underwhelming Rellik) done so badly I was relieved when it didn’t carry through the episode. Somehow Ozark also lost the willingness to edit. Several episodes are over an hour for no reason.
Gone is any sense of place. The first season of Ozark barely filmed at all on location in Lake Ozark, so sense of place was always one of the show’s lesser virtues, yet somehow it becomes even less important. These episodes could basically take place anywhere, so it feels like they take place nowhere. If Ruth didn’t keep telling cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) that he needs to get his act together so that he can get into Mizzou, you’d forget entirely. For these episodes it’s off-season in Lake Ozark and without tourists or warm weather, it’s like the writers decided there was no point in ever going outside.
That brings me to the visual bleakness. I’ve watched shows about the Amish with more effective use of light bulbs. I’ve watched series set literally in the Dark Ages that didn’t take darkness so literally. Better Call Saul had a character who thought he was allergic to electricity and removed all power sources from his life and yet even poor, tortured Chuck McGill realized his platitudes were more effective if you could see him. It’s not like it’s unintentional. This is exactly how Ozark wants to look. It just happens that 10 episodes of sepulchral lighting meant to mirror the somber characters and their dreary world is a real bore. I miss colors that aren’t black, blue and green.
This extends to writers figuring out how a show about agonized people can sometimes be less than agonizing in tone. I know many people who think the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale season was nonstop suffering porn. The second season of Ozark makes the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale seem alive with color (which it is), subversive humor (which it is) and episodic variation (which maybe it isn’t). The second season of Ozark left me feeling exhausted and without any compensating payoffs. Though the show that I like is still a piece of the Ozark tapestry, the process of wading through the swamp to get there no longer feels worth the effort. Your results may vary.
(Ozark is produced by MRC. MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.)
Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jordana Spiro, Jason Butler Harner, Peter Mullan, Lisa Emery
Creator: Bill Dubuque
Showrunner: Chris Mundy
Premieres: Friday, Aug. 31 (Netflix)
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