Netflix’s latest highly anticipated original series Narcos charts the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug baron and “King of Cocaine” who died in a hail of bullets 22 years ago when trying to escape a hide-out in his hometown of Medellin, Colombia. He was believed to have controlled around 80% of cocaine imported into America, with a peak net worth somewhere in the vicinity of $US30 billion.
Escobar, who spent a tiny portion of his squillions building schools and hospitals and donating to poor communities, is sometimes regarded as a Robin Hood-esque figure. Presumably Columbia’s ‘I Heart Pablo’ merchandise is either a bitter joke or turns a blind eye to an extensive bloody catalogue of crimes and killings.
Some are depicted in the show, which was written by Chris Brancato (who recently worked on TV’s Hannibal) and directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilla, migrating to the small screen after directing the 2014 Robocop remake and 2011’s thrilling Rio de Janeiro-set crime drama Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.
The protagonist of Narcos is not Escobar but DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) who we hear more than see. The structure of the show unfolds like a long audio essay, with dense narration clearly inspired by Goodfellas and Casino. With an exotic setting and a visual tone that scales back colour and contrast but remains bright — a crisp, clean looking aesthetic — the show comes on like Scorsese on holiday, mixed with a quasi-documentary style that occasionally integrates real news footage.
Murphy sporadically addresses the audience and infuses his dialogue with opinions and personal observations, but Narco nevertheless unfolds like a long pseudo-history lesson. The many conversational stop-offs along the way — from examining the business margins of the powder trade to drug mule transportation, war against police and analysis of the appeal of the drug itself — are treated more like talking points than backstories.
The cumulative effect is something that takes on a vibe that’s at best encyclopaedic, at worst a downright gabfest — the feeling a person has your ear and will not surrender it. The first 12 minutes is non-stop talking until Escobar is introduced. “I make deals,” he says, and by George we believe him. The narration eases up, but not for long.
The structure of Narcos is undoubtedly bold. Despite Murphy interjecting his personality and attitude — “don’t call me a bad guy just yet,” he says, after we watch the cops slaughter a nightclub full of people — it is also largely impersonal. This straight-up approach to divulging information, as if the protagonist were reading a memoir or a long magazine feature, has a way of enforcing a critical distance between on-screen drama and our interpretation of it. If Murphy’s role is to analyse what we see, then what is ours?
Neither Escobar nor Murphy come across as particularly striking characters in the first two episodes (which are the basis of this review) but the writing on the wall suggests that might change. The stakes are slowly escalating, the performances are strong (Wagner Moura in particular brings a creepy boyishness to the drug baron) and the narration’s tendency to undercut, rather than enhance, character development will hopefully wane as Narcos progresses into its 10 episode first season.
Like the scattered narrative jigsaws of family thriller-drama Bloodline and the Wachowski siblings’ epic sci-fi fantasy Sense8, both also Netflix originals, the very existence of Narcos seems in part predicated on advocating long form television as a viable medium. Here that takes on particularly interesting (and potentially problematic) permutations, given such a dense narrative format over such a long running time. In a sense the series is a hard sell, but the marketing tag-line, at least, is a humdinger: “There’s no business like blow business”.