“In the United States, the Mafia makes witnesses disappear so they can’t testify in court. In Colombia, Pablo Escobar made the whole court disappear.”
This summer, Netflix began a massive rollout of original content. While the quality of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp managed to receive most of the love from audiences, those two series were far from the full extent of summer content. Promotion was relatively light until closer to the premiere, but Netflix had a lot of hope for Narcos, a historical fiction crime drama about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug kingpin and founder of the Medellín Cartel.
The basic premise of Narcos is simple. After years of success with the illegal transportation and sale of foreign goods through Colombia, Pablo Escobar (played to perfection by Wagner Moura) enters the new cocaine trade in the late 1980s. To combat Escobar and the newly-founded Medellín Cartel, DEA agent Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook) works with fellow agent Javier Peña (played by Pedro Pascal) to end the threat as quickly as possible. This synopsis is heavily simplified, but you get the general gist of the show: DEA agents working to stop a leader in the drug trade.
As I mentioned before, Narcos is a work of historical fiction, meaning that it tells a mostly true-to-life story while changing up some events and characters to better suit the creators’ serialized take. Historical fiction is always extremely risky on television (and, yes, I do consider Netflix originals as being television). Usually, the genre will lead to either fantastic storytelling or a mediocre dramatization of history. With Narcos, we get a sort of mixed bag. The actual take on the events is pretty inspired, in my opinion, almost equally covering the rise of Escobar while juxtaposing it with the decline of the personal life of Murphy during his and Peña’s investigation. The writing in the show is among the best that you’ll find in the genre, and as someone that isn’t entirely knowledgeable of the real-life events, the blurred line of fiction and reality is pretty difficult to recognize. Narcos also does a really incredible job at blending in footage and photographs of the actual Escobar and the events being fictionalized in the show.
However, the essential problem with Narcos isn’t so much the nature of the story as it is the nature of television. Narcos is something that would work wonderfully as a 13-episode miniseries or limited series. Instead, the story is structured and told in such a way that multiple seasons’ worth of material can be cultivated. While the first season of the show is a below-average ten episodes, it’s in the very nature of the continuing structure that we’re not going to really get into the payoff that the audience wants. Essentially, this first season of Narcos is all necessary build-up that isn’t able to follow through with a real conclusion. (A good comparison would be the film adaptations of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. While it’s a story that, more or less, needed more time than normal to completely tell, the necessary build-up all had to take place before we could see the ending.) Through ten episodes, we see events begin, relationships defined, and the requisite progression necessary in a serialized format, but the season ends with almost no satisfying payoff. That, presumably, will come in the already-announced second season. So while this isn’t entirely a fault of the show, it’s still a negative that makes you wonder what could have been through a different storytelling method. C’est la vie.
A much more positive note about Narcos is the acting. The cast on the show is incredibly admirable, delivering performances far deserving of a better show. Moura absolutely shines as Pablo Escobar, stealing every scene (and there are many) that he’s in during the season. I have to admit that I preferred the Escobar of the earlier episodes to the kingpin that he became, but Moura doesn’t flinch at all at the weight consistently added to his shoulders. Holbrook and Pascal are equally wonderful as their DEA agent partners, and it’s so much fun seeing the two interacting. The actors bring such a camaraderie to the relationship that I wouldn’t mind seeing the continuing adventures of these characters after Escobar is taken down. The rest of the cast, both main and guest, do well-enough with their given material, but one other bright point for me is Joanna Christie’s performance as Steve’s wife, Connie. She isn’t in the show nearly as much as I would like, but Christie has the ability to really sell the audience on the emotional struggle that Connie is going through, and it brings an air of gravitas that is much appreciated.
The cinematography on Narcos is just as great as we’ve come to expect from Netflix originals, and it seems that the entire cast and crew really do care about the material. It harkens back to the inherent issues with television storytelling, but Narcos does suffer from a mid-season slump. The first three and final two episodes of the season are fantastic, but everything in-between doesn’t live up to what comes before and after. While these episodes still have some great storytelling moments (and the action scenes throughout the season are incredibly well-done), there were times when it became difficult to keep focus on what was in front of me. With Netflix shows, I typically binge-watch in just a few days, but Narcos took me about three weeks (on-and-off) to complete. I’m sure that there are people who would just stay on the edges of their seats throughout the show, but I, unfortunately, was not one of them.
Narcos is a very good show, and I hope that my criticism doesn’t take away from what it accomplishes. If you’re looking for a good crime thriller to sit down and watch for ten hours, there are far worse shows that you could choose. And, despite my criticism, I’m really looking forward to next season. I do think that Season 2 will be a major improvement in storytelling, and if the cast and crew succeed similarly to the ways in which they did during the first season, Narcos has the potential to become something really special.
[Photo via Netflix]