Right off the bat, it’s clear just how much DNA Netflix’s The Mechanism shares with one of its biggest hits, Narcos. That’s not only because the new series is a densely plotted South American crime drama carried along by an ever-present voiceover, but also because it boasts José Padilha (RoboCop) as its creator. Padilha, of course, directed the first two episodes of Narcos and serves as an executive producer on the series, which makes the structural and narrative similarities between the two shows much more understandable. It feels less like a bald-faced attempt to duplicate another program’s success than, simply, one good turn deserves another.
A comparison to Narcos will certainly work in favor of The Mechanism, which might be a harder sell to North American audiences since it lacks certain elements that made the former more palatable to viewers who are perhaps subtitle phobic. But for those who are undeterred by the need to read (or don’t require the presence of a white guy named Boyd), the series will likely scratch a particular TV crime drama itch, while the wait for Narcos season 4 continues.
The Mechanism tells the story of the investigation into the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history, and, much like Narcos, it does so through the eyes of the tenacious investigators whose obsessive personalities keep them working on a case that goes on for years. But whereas Narcos told the story of Pablo Escobar — or re-told, since it had already been done countless times — before moving on to the Cali Cartel, The Mechanism is working with a case many people outside of South America might not be fully aware of. That case, known as Operation Car Wash, concerned the theft of billions of dollars from public funds, and its fallout included a staggering number of politicians.
Unlike the story of Escobar, Padilha and screenwriter Elena Soarez are free from certain comparisons and expectations in telling the story of bribery, kickbacks, and governmental corruption. That offers them the freedom necessary to present the narrative in a manner that is more focused on the psychological toll police work of this kind can have. Like Narcos, The Mechanism loves a good voiceover, but this time the device lends the series a more extreme first-person perspective than it does a Wikipedia-like reading of the historical record.
But just because the series takes a less clinical approach to the device doesn’t make the extent to which it is used any less exasperating — with one exception. The season begins with a peek into the obsessive mind of Marco Ruffo (Selton Mello), a federal police deputy who is so strung out and on the edge when he’s first introduced, the voiceover essentially mainlines his obsession directly into the audience’s brains. Ruffo is entirely focused on Roberto Ibrahim (Enrique Diaz) a criminal moving millions around the country and paying off officials in order to keep the law one step behind him. Ruffo’s obsession, then, lies in his inability to bring Ibrahim to justice, despite the overwhelming evidence he’s accumulated by picking through the criminal’s trash and meticulously re-assembling shredded documents. As such, the voiceover essentially speeds up the getting-to-know-you phase of Ruffo’s character, which proves useful when the series makes a surprising change in point of view halfway through the first episode.
Ruffo’s failed case against Ibrahim works as a prologue of sorts, so that when the series shifts, by jumping forward in time and by adjusting its focus (and voiceover) to that of Ruffo’s mentee, Verena Cardoni (Caroline Abras), all the show’s cards are essentially on the table. The characters have all been introduced, and the stakes are appropriately high — given what we now know about the scandal and what the series shows us happened to Ruffo. It all adds up to a well-paced start to the series, one that eschews the ponderousness of similar streaming shows that use Netflix’s all-at-once method as an excuse to forgo certain ingredients like intrigue, conflict, and genuine excitement.
Though The Mechanism moves along at a decent clip — by episode two Verena is neck deep in a brand new investigation against Ibrahim — its pace is largely a side effect of its heavy use of voiceover. In Narcos, the problem of the voiceover was in how it rendered too much of the drama inert. A character said what they were going to do and then we watched as they went and did exactly what they said they were going to do. Narcos could partially excuse this on account of how easily the voiceover synthesized a large amount of historical information, but The Mechanism doesn’t have the same macro approach, and as a result, the drama — when focused on Verena — sometimes feels more static. What’s worse, it’s easy to imagine simply cutting the voiceover altogether without any negative effects to the story whatsoever. In fact, its absence would likely make The Mechanism a much more suspenseful viewing experience.
Still, in the show’s defense, the series finds (maybe inadvertently) an unexpected remedy in Ibrahim and the rest of the supporting cast. Because the voiceover is largely from the extreme point of view of a single character, anytime the focus shifts to the criminal, Verena’s supervisor, or one of subordinates, there is a hint of intrigue as the viewer is left to contemplate what they know that Verena does not in that moment in time. In watching episodes that were released for critics, this was done too sparingly, but it offered a suitable enough workaround to an otherwise avoidable problem.
In the end, The Mechanism proves to be a competent procedural operating on a huge, historic scale, one that, while sharing a lot of DNA with Narcos also has hints of The Wire and even the recent drama Collateral. It’s an entertaining watch. And for those who are chomping at the bit for Netflix’s popular historical crime drama to return for season 4, this series should be enough to tide them over.
The Mechanism is currently streaming on Netflix.