When I saw the description on Netflix for this show I was expecting just another run of the mill procedural that would confuse grit and slow pacing with artsy “quality” television. I thought I would give it a shot, but most likely give up a couple of episodes in. That’s pretty much what happened when I tried to watch Marco Polo a few months ago, and couldn’t make it past the second episode because of really bad acting and even worse fetishizing of “Mongolian” culture and the female body. It was awful. Narcos seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Breaking Bad from the description. I know this will make me the minority and even possibly open me up to derision, but that show was just too bleak for my tastes. I gave it two full seasons and it never let up for a single second. I couldn’t take a television show that episode after episode took itself so seriously, and never shifted in tones, basically bludgeoning me with its gravitas and its despicable nature. People have tried to assure me that it’s got humor, but I guess I just never got the joke.
Going back to the review at hand, let’s just say that I wasn’t entirely convinced I would like the show. Turns out I did like it. A lot. The plot is simple enough, even more simple if this name means something to you: Pablo Escobar. If the name rings a bell, it’s because in the 80s he was one of the most dangerous, powerful, and rich men in the world. As the de facto leader of the Medellin Cartel in Colombia, he became the biggest exporter and trafficker of cocaine in the world and his business reared so much money, the quantities of which are unfathomable to the average human being. It is often really hard to make a show centered around an actual person, especially one as notorious as Escobar. When the audience knows the history and ultimately knows what will happen (think The Tudors or The Borgias), well, the drama kinda loses itself because the stakes are no longer very high, so even when the acting and the production are excellent the issue of surprise or expectation still must be addressed. Narcos does not suffer from this issue. The truth is so much stranger than fiction, and the pacing of the show so high octane that at times one forgets that it is based on true events. Now, it must be remembered that a serialized television show is not a documentary or actual history, so someone looking for or expecting complete accuracy should not approach this show with such demands. It is entertainment and certain moments are obviously going to be rendered more thrilling for television and storytelling reasons, but if such agreement can be obtained then the show is a lot of fun. The pacing is the biggest strength, and in future seasons (if there are, which I do expect there to be) could be its biggest downfall. The first season, consisting of 10 episodes, speeds through about 15 years of events (from about 1978 to about 1993). That is a lot of story for what amounts to be less than ten hours of content (most episodes run between 40 and 50 minutes). This is a minor spoiler alert, so be warned, but with Escobar famously dying in the mid 90s, it’s hard to believe that over a decade of storytelling in the first season will then become a much slower paced second season focusing entirely on the last couple of years of Escobar’s life, unless the show has sights beyond him when it returns and thus proving again how surprising of a show it is.
There are a few interesting devices at work in this show that must be addressed. Firstly, it is really interesting how the creators chose to interweave actual archival footage into the series. It is especially interesting because it uses footage of Escobar and Colombian politicians while actors portray these same people on screen, and not always are they similar looking. But ultimately it proves to be really successful, albeit at times downright horrific as the images portray real dead and mangled bodies and the horrors caused by the drug wars. Another narrative device used is the voiceover. I could see how this could be a bit annoying to some viewers, but I found it to be very effective and almost reminiscent of Scorsese’s GoodFellas. The narration fills the audience in on what cannot be shown on screen and also catches us up with historical events concurrent or anterior to what is being shown on screen. Lastly, and this could be the most troublesome issue for some viewers, most of the show is not in English. I always found it a bit jarring in films that even when there is no English speaker present, people still continued to speak in English amongst themselves even when the characters shared a mutual first language. This show finally addresses the preposterous idea and whenever an American is not on screen the characters speak in their native Spanish. The show does take place in Colombia after all. This does lend a level of authenticity few American productions have ever dared to try before, and it works. I must warn native Spanish speakers, though, that not all cast members are Colombian. Even to my untrained ears some of the Spanish felt different or at least inconsistent (I use subtitled but can understand a majority without having to read them). I then discovered that the actor playing Escobar (who is basically the main character of the series) is actually Brazilian. But if someone can get over the inauthentic accents, the show is really worth watching.
The cast is made up mostly of Latino actors and a couple of Americans who will be unknown to most of the audience. A couple of exceptions are Luis Guzman (Traffic, Boogie Nights) and Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones). The show is truly an ensemble piece and all the characters work really well together. However, being a show about men and the drug trade and the wars it created, the female characters are a bit laking. There are women in the show, but they are virtually almost all either wives, mistresses, or prostitutes. Regardless of their role, every single woman that appears on screen (with the exception of Escobar’s mother and the American ambassador) also appears topless. It is a shame that such an interesting show would fall prey to the sexposition craze initiated by the equally phenomenal (and therefore very irritating) Game of Thrones: meaning that in order to provide what could be boring but important information, it is done while there are nude women on screen so that the information is given during an enticing and titillating visual spectacle. The men also make use of a gay bashing expletive for no reason other than because it is likely how people express themselves, but since nothing interesting is done with it, it mostly just seems like a way to get away with such a slur. Returning to the women for one more second… One thing that I must acknowledge as a positive is that Narcos refuses to depict the wives and mothers of these criminals like other shows do. Most of the time we get the image of the madonna like woman who was completely unaware of her husband’s doings. She is the ultimate victim. This show refuses to tell that story, which does not mean that that narrative isn’t legitimate or doesn’t exist, it’s just that this series is not interested in that perspective. Every woman on the show knows fully well what is occurring, and sometimes even champions wrongdoing – the women are not dumb or naive, they know what they are getting themselves into and are willing participants in the events, even if they ultimately are mere observers and don’t have hardly any agency in this show.
I used the word criminal above, which brings me to my last point. I was not specific who that word was directed towards because neither is the television show. It is so easy to get caught up in the images of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ guys. We create entire mythologies to justify one side’s actions while vilifying another’s. Such distinctions are harder to make in Narcos. Sure, Pablo Escobar was a monster who committed atrocious crimes. But the Colombian government was complicit in so many of them, and when it decided to fight back it did so with unsavory means. And the American involvement was no less criminal in its quest to bring down the drug cartels and the “communists” during the Cold War. Grey areas invade all facets and point of view, rendering nobody a hero and making it less evident who the bad guy ultimately is. And that makes for some really compelling and interesting television.