“Justice is not about popularity.”
– Show Me a Hero, a show that looks like it’s gonna get it right.
White Cover Magazine
What is it that makes any writer or show runner think narration is a good idea?
I suppose it works sometimes. But if it’s going to work, it has to be conscious and aware of its role. It works in some artsy fartsy films – Vicky Cristina Barcelona or One Week, for two quick examples. It worked in Goodfellas, of course, and Scorsese’s success with that film has no doubt tortured every filmmaker from 1990 to now, the same way Spielberg set the standard for monster movies with Jaws, and ever since then, I’m sure those movies have haunted as much as inspired the hack directors that have tried to copy them. (In Spielberg’s case, he saw two of this movies – Jurassic Park and Jaws – dragged off by other directors, who thought they could keep adding on -equels and make them good, as if Matt Cassel could replace Brady under center.)
This is where Narcos comes in. This is why it fails, mostly.
There are entertaining moments and, of course, I watched the whole thing. Which is I guess all Netflix cares about, or all any producer that depends on binge-watching cares about – with streaming libraries, with YouTube, with anything that doesn’t require you to pay every time you watching something or jump off the couch, quality is never important.
They know we’ll watch anything, crap or Oscar-winning.
Why do you think TV networks got away with recycling the same, awful sitcoms year-after-year? Until the Internet ruined their party, they knew it didn’t matter if the laugh track couldn’t convince you their shows were funny. They knew there were a million families out there who would just sit down and say, “I want to watch something. What’s on? Dharma and Greg? Fu*k, fine.”
That’s where Netflix is. It doesn’t need to hit a home run every time. Not every series to be something worth 10 hours of your time – they only need a couple House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. The rest can be Lilyhammer or Marco Polo or Narcos.
What’s most disappointing about this extended Pablo Escobar Lifetime movie is that there’s some genuine life and heart here. (Like the fake studio head Harvey said in Entourage, after fake actor Vincent Chase’s failed trial with his own fake passion project about Escobar, “There’s brilliance here.”) Actors Wagner Moura is terrific as Pablo, and Game of Thrones vet Pedro Pascal is enthralling as Javi Pena, one of the agents who brings him down. Ideally, the show would be a 10-episode tennis match between those two – all we need to see is Pablo play Robert de Niro to Pascal’s Al Pacino, with some sort of Heat-like diner scene, in a series stuffed with subtle action and cryptic, powerful dialogue.
Instead, we get unnecessary, cheesy narration from cutout character Steve Murphy – who was also one of the real cops who brought down Escobar from 1990 to ’93 – and actor Boyd Holbrook.
(It should be noted, you could very logically take Narcos‘ style another way, in a more positive way. Whereas I’ve written off about half of every episode for being corny, formulaic cardboard, the AV Club‘s Joshua Alston watched it with the opposite opinion, and it makes sense – “miraculously, the show is fun to watch not because it bucks the clichés of a war-on-drugs drama, but because it embraces them,” Alston writes. “It’s the woefully rare example of by-the-numbers storytelling that serves as a reminder of how those numbers got their sequence in the first place.”)
Holbrook might be a sturdy actor, but Narcos ruins his best chance (at this point in his career) for a breakout role. If Pascal or Moura were narrating the thing – or better yet, if both were – then maybe there’d be some way to make it work. Maybe we’d hear inner conflicts and at least one good goddamn metaphor or two. But with the script he’s been given, Holbrook’s reads sound like they were written by a 15 year old who’s just seen Goodfellas for the first time.
They’re full of wisdoms that aren’t fresh or unique – and therefore, not even wise; they’re combovers for a show that didn’t take the time to craft a script that showed without telling.
“This show is so overstuffed with plot elements that it doesn’t trust its audience to figure out anything. At all,” writes Vox‘s Todd VanDerWerff, in a review that more expertly breaks down what I’m trying to say here. VanDerWerff calls Narcos a “Wikipedia entry” on Escobar, and that’s perhaps a decent way to tear down the show’s reached-for-but-lacking creativity in two words – although, I found myself constantly swiping over to Wikipedia to double-check facts or events or happenings. Because even though the show spends so much time going over every detail and every last name that sounds the same to a Gringo like me (is everyone in Colombia named Gaviria, serious question?), it still manages to be subtle where it shouldn’t and blunt where it shouldn’t.
“This is a potentially great TV series waging war with a deeply mediocre one, and the mediocre series almost always wins,” writes VanDerWerff.
And because Murphy’s hardly on the screen – not more than Pena, and definitely not more than Escobar, who’s really the show’s main character even though Murphy tells us to root against him – I didn’t even care about the character that was supposed to be my guide.
There’s a tip for any show runner who’s thinking of giving their show a balladeer – never let anyone but the protagonist be the narrator. (Unless it’s Dukes of Hazzard and we never see the voice we’re hearing.)
Don’t get me wrong, here: I wanted to like Narcos, and it did get better as the episodes added up. But unlike True Detective‘s second season or even Breaking Bad‘s first seasons, both of which took their sweet time finding their legs, Narcos and Netflix don’t have that excuse. When you’re making something just so it can be consumed in sweatpants over a weekend, and when your business model doesn’t allow for a pilot, and when you have all the time and control in the world over the release date, there’s no reason – or room – for out-of-the-gate failure.
You don’t have the benefit to wait for the public’s reaction to react.
And I should say, I did like Narcos. As I mentioned above, I watched the whole thing. You’re reading the work of a guy who has consumed films and shows about gangs, guns, and cocaine – that includes the terrific Johnny Depp movie Blow, and the Pablo documentary by ESPN, Two Escobars. Both of those, one a feature film and the other an educational film, are better than Narcos, however. And that’s okay – I wouldn’t want to hold every single film or series to a standard I and I alone have created.
But if you watch the show with those in mind, which is inevitable if you’ve seen them both, it’s as if Narcos is trying to decide which one it should be, and it never quite commits to either. If you’ve seen Goodfellas – and I don’t feel bad comparing Narcos to that film, since it’s obvious the show’s creators are trying to copy it – then you won’t be able stop wincing when you hear Holbrook’s voice. You’ll just keep thinking, “Ray Liotta, man. Ray Liotta.”
But I’m disappointed because – like with HBO’s teasing, ultimately uneventful Ballers – Narcos had potential and the recipe. It had great characters and excellent actors and it has the audience and the public’s interest.
But it burns the turkey. And Netflix won’t care, because they have you paying the restaurant before you’ve tried the meal.