[This is a review of Narcos season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Despite a disclaimer at the beginning of every episode about how names and events having been changed for the purpose of dramatizing the story, Narcos is very interested in presenting facts and details. Its goal, then, is seemingly to make those details seem as authentic and understandable to its audience as possible. In order to achieve that objective, the series, from writer-producers Chris Brancato, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard, and director José Padilha, relies extensively on an inescapable voiceover that bogs the first hour down in so much exposition, the series premiere feels less like the start of a story and more like the preamble of a very long lesson.
Although it is ostensibly the tale of the rise of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel, and the individuals whose job it was to try and stop them both, Narcos isn't really interested in who Pablo Escobar is or who the members of the task force charged with bringing him to justice really are. It's more interested in the broad strokes of history, presented in a condensed chronicle told via 10 hours of television.
There are hints of character sprinkled about, such as the way Wagner Moura's performance as Escobar taps the extreme nature of the drug dealer's personality at times. Escobar is a remorseless killer who demands the woman he's having sex with be respectful of his wife. It paints a clear picture, sure, but even with all that clarity it is difficult to isolate the reason the audience is supposed to care about this iteration of the drug lord beyond the knowledge of who he is.
Escobar's introduction – first from a voiceover by Boyd Holbrook, who plays Steve Murphy, a DEA agent working in conjunction with Colombian authorities, and later in the rare scene given the chance to breathe and develop without the aid of narration – allows Moura to take center stage, and brazenly threaten a group of military men by informing them just how much he knows about their personal lives. The moment strikes a chord to be sure, placing Escobar in an elite category of criminal in full command of seemingly unlimited resources to ensure his future success. As soon as the audience is shown a conspicuously omniscient Escobar hammer out a deal with some soldiers, he makes the leap from smuggling various and sundry items to becoming the name in the cocaine trade.
The scene on the bridge revels in Moura's ability to exude cold dominance, but in Escobar's methods it also hints at the series' obsession with the regurgitation of facts as currency, narrative or otherwise. In the early going, those facts build a solid foundation, but they don't offer much in terms of a structure for the characters to inhabit. In a way, Narcos is reminiscent of Boardwalk Empire, in that, so far, it doesn't aim to be about anything. It is engaging on a visceral level, but does it aspire to become something more?
There is hope of that in an early sequence where Holbrook's character sends a squad to dispose of a cartel member who goes by moniker Poison. The ensuing bloodbath hints at the murky ethics of the police adopting a "whatever it takes" approach to law enforcement. That places the characters in a complex situation immersed in an alluring locale (which is often lushly photographed). Unfortunately, outside that and one moment of brutal interrogation, the first two hours offer the characters little opportunity to be more than one-dimensional vessels to distribute information. And that's too bad, because Narcos has the electric Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) at its disposal.
Pascal plays Javier Peña, the partner of Holbrook's Murphy, who, in the first hour spends less than a minute on screen. Much of that is due to the fact that 'Descenso' spends most of its time suspended somewhere between fictionalized chronicle and documentary, providing a cursory glimpse of Escobar's rise in the drug trade and an equally cursory look at the events that brought Murphy to Colombia. By the time things get cooking in episode 2 – which offers more of Peña and a little more (but not much) for Holbrook to do than deliver his narration – there is a sense that Narcos would have made a much bigger splash had it dropped the audience right into the middle of the story, rather than spend the better part of an hour setting that story up.
Narcos will inevitably draw comparisons to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas for the way it utilizes voiceover and for the massive scope of the narrative. At a glance, those comparisons are fair. But where Goodfellas used its voiceover to manage the narrative and give an idea of who Henry Hill was as a person, Narcos' use of narration sometimes comes off more like the writers don't fully trust the audience. Viewers are being told what is important rather than being shown why it is important.
The story of Pablo Escobar is intrinsically riveting – which explains why so many films (including the fictional Medellín from Entourage) have taken the time to tell it. Narcos may sit atop the bedrock of the Escobar legend, but what it has built so far is not quite as sturdy.
Narcos season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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