Pablo Escobar was a drug trafficker, mass murderer and terrorist. Which, of course, means that he happens to make for very entertaining television.
Netflix unveiled their new show Narcos a few weeks ago, and it may have been the purest example of what the streaming service can offer that cable and network TV cannot. The first thing they did, because they must have read my suggestion to do so, is cut the episode order to 10. There is not an ounce of fat on this show or, in other words, this is the pure, uncut stuff.
They also condense several years worth of history into this 10 episodes, rather than try to milk it for a larger episode count. This does mean that the storytelling isn’t quite as rich and dense as something like The Wire, but it does a better job of delivering the goods in a tight, streamlined manner. In some ways, Narcos is like a Wikipedia hole come to life. You look up Pablo Escobar, which leads you to his life, his crimes, his pursuers and his ultimate downfall.
The first episode begins with a title card explaining Magical Realism, which doesn’t really make much sense because Gabriel Garcia Marquez this ain’t. I have to assume that they are referring to the way that events that likely took weeks or months of research in reality, happen because a third person happens to be in the room who says “Hey, isn’t that So-and-So?” on the show. Not that I’m complaining, but it would take someone more scholarly than myself to tell you whether or not Narcos is a legitimate example of Magical Realism. What I can tell you is that I really enjoyed this show.
I’m probably going to tread on some spoiler territory below, so consider yourself warned.
The first thing worth mentioning is Wagner Moura, who portrays Escobar. It’s a killer part and he effectively kills it. It seems that the showrunners and the actor all realize that Escobar was an evil man who deserves no sympathy from the viewers. So, rather that going after sympathy, they go after motivations. Escobar does most of the monstrous things that he does to ensure the growth and survival of his empire, however, he also sees himself as unfairly persecuted and disrespected. We, the viewers, see that there’s nothing unfair about it, but Moura does a fantastic job of showing us things from Escobar’s perspective. Again, this does not elicit sympathy, but it does show us the why of the character.
All of the performances are – at the very least – solid, but the others that absolutely need to be touched upon are Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal (late of getting his head exploded as Prince Oberyn on Game of Thrones) as the DEA agents tasked with bringing Escobar to justice. Holbrook’s Steven Murphy is the audience surrogate, looped into the situation in Colombia at the same time as we are. He also provides voice over narration that is just informative enough while remaining brief, which keeps it from becoming overbearing. Pascal plays Javier Pena, who’s already embedded in the drug war culture at the start of the series, and so is both Murphy’s guide as well as out own. The pair play well off each other and, while they don’t have quite the same depths to plunge as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective, they are more proactive and less philosophically brooding.
There are some tropes that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen this sort of story played out before. Corruption rots the core of society as cops, military and politicos are mostly crooked, Meanwhile, the politicians who take on Escobar tend to end up like the drummers in Spinal Tap.
A few more thing worth mentioning without running on too long, is that Narcos is filmed in Colombia, rather than Canada or California, so it doesn’t look like any other show on TV. A deal breaker for some may be that a good half of the show’s dialogue is in Spanish. Odds are this was done so that Netflix can continue it’s endeavors of international conquest, but it also makes sense to me since this show takes place in Colombia where most of the people you meet will not be speaking English.
The only quibble I have is that the show ran at a rate that had me believing they’d wrap the story up in episode 10, so I was a little disappointed that they did not. Still, another season of Narcos is certainly not a bad thing. All in all, I’d recommend giving it a look to most people who like full throttle storytelling loaded up for their binging pleasure. Narcos is much like the mountain of cocaine on Tony Montana’s desk at the end of Scarface, so feel free to overindulge.