Netflix's new crime drama Ozark boasts strong performance from Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, but its grimness and lack of focus gets in the way.
Now that Netflix has committed to more of a catch and release model of overseeing its many original television shows, canceling underperforming duds after just one or sometimes a few seasons, there are noticeable voids waiting to be filled where once the streaming giant was teetering on the verge of overwhelming glut. The glut is still obvious, as anyone who's searched aimlessly through the site can attest. As result, one has to wonder what need the service was addressing by greenlighting projects like the Jason Bateman-led, ultra-grim money laundering series Ozark.
With its intense, often dour exploration of the seedy, secret existence led by middle-class, middle-of-the-road Midwesterners, the wannabe crime saga is clearly taking a page out of the playbook of the recently ended Bloodline. The two shows even share a passion for delivering, first and foremost, a strong sense of place, which is then followed up by a handful of strong performances, and then hoping the dark story being told eventually falls into place. In the case of Ozark, though, Netflix trades the sweaty, sunbaked backdrop of the Florida Keys for the tree-lined seclusion of the Lake of the Ozarks. The results, however, are similarly unspectacular.
The series, about Chicago financial analyst Marty Byrde (Bateman), who launders money for a Mexican drug cartel, hails from co-creator and writer Bill Dubuque, and showrunner Chris Mundy. Considering each man's previous work, it comes as no surprise that Ozark is a grim, often-humorless exercise outwardly infatuated with convincing viewers of the deep narrative well that exists in the world of financial misconduct. Dubuque splashed around in similar waters last year with the Ben Affleck-led action-drama The Accountant, while Mundy (who also wrote for Bloodline) is perhaps best known for taking the reins on AMC's extraordinarily dour Low Winter Sun.
Like The Accountant, Ozark is content to hover in the margins of its main character's profession, swooping down occasionally to hit the audience with just enough accounting jargon to superficially validate its place as the backbone of the story. That story begins with a lengthy monologue from Marty, the delivery and cadence of which bears a striking resemblance to Joel Murray's Freddie Rumsen pitching an Acutron campaign to Elisabeth Moss's Peggy Olson at the start of Mad Men season 7. Marty's seemingly sound professional advice is undercut by his decision to surreptitiously view a salacious video of his wife cheating on him, while meeting with potential clients. That's undercut even further when it's revealed Marty's partner has been skimming from their main client, Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales), and things turn predictably violent in a flash. In a last-ditch effort to save his life, Marty pitches the Lake of the Ozarks as the perfect location to conduct Del's business, and to launder his cash even faster.
It's an enormous gamble that's thin, even for a guy pleading for life, let alone as the conceit of a television drama. Nevertheless, it provides Ozark with the necessary narrative thrust to get its grim blend of family-on-the-run, fish-out-of-water storytelling off the ground. Like too many television dramas, however, once it's taken off, Ozark settles for a modest, low-ceiling cruising altitude, instead of shooting for the stars.
The results are a series of interconnected plot threads that include, Marty and Wendy (Laura Linney) never quite tending to their ruined marriage, and their two kids, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) being uprooted from presumably comfortable lives, as the family scrambles to start over in the Ozarks. Once there, the show just continues to develop new storylines rather than follow through with the one at hand. That means the introduction of a clan of small-time criminals inexplicably led by The Americans' Julia Garner. With the exception of Garner, the pack could just as easily have been played by a band of feral raccoons, considering the trouble they cause is roughly the equivalent of a tipped-over trash can in the grand scheme of things.
That's a good way to describe the storytelling of Ozark through the first few episodes: a series of tipped-over trashcans. In other words, the series likes to hit its characters with small problems that can typically be solved by making what appears to be a grand gesture or speech. Marty and Wendy are both well versed in the latter; the analyst and his wife are a pair of quick thinkers, so long as there's an obstacle immediately in front of them. And that's pretty much how the series views the rest of the supporting cast who've presumably been dug up from a book of prestige drama clichés.
There's the witty lodge owner Rachel (Jordan Spiro), and the vaguely sociopathic FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who is battling his own laundry list of demons while making little headway on a case that seems to be operating with almost no official oversight whatsoever. Then there's Harris Yulin as the Byrde family's unexpected tenant in their new Missouri home, and by the time Peter Cullen arrives, as a crime lord bearing an accent similar to the one he brandished to greater effect in Cinemax's far superior Quarry, you're no longer certain what show you're watching.
The multitude of character threads-as-problems-to-be-solved muddles the presentation throughout the first 10 episodes. They never quite create a convincing, cohesive whole, so what Ozark is left with is the premise of five or so different television series battling it out for supremacy. That indecisiveness is amplified by the series' unflagging commitment to its grim tone. Despite Bateman's demonstrated mastery of sarcasm and witty banter, Ozark offers him little chance to inject some much-needed humor into the proceedings. Instead it saddles him with an oppressive guilt and unrelenting stress, like Bloodline did Kyle Chandler, giving an otherwise agile performer too little variance to be able to find, much less capitalize on, Marty's quirks. At times, Linney and Garner are better served, but for the former, the development comes so late in the first season it threatens to knock the series off its already rickety rails.
Ozark is well served by it penchant for twists, which keep the series from suffering from the malady of streaming drift that afflicts so many of Netflix's offerings. And while the show never lacks for unexpected problems for its characters to solve, it doesn't offer much in the way of tonal variance with regard to those problems. So instead of wandering into streaming drift, the series tends to stray into a dull sameness that, a few strong performances aside, make it an otherwise average addition to the Netflix streaming library.
Ozark season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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