I can almost picture the TV executive spinning round in his office chair, puffing on a chunky cigar before poking a finger at the producer across the desk…
‘People like bad guys. Give me Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper. Give me a drug-dealing gangster. Give everything a slightly yellow tint… and set it in the past! People love that!’
This kind of reductionist idea pilfering (which I like to call the ‘ITV Approach’!) is easy to see in the make-up of the Netflix original series Narcos. However, to judge the production on its obvious inspirations would be grossly unfair when the finished entity has every right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest shows available on the subscription video service or elsewhere.
A meeting of two worlds
Told through the voice of a Columbia-based DEA agent and narrated with a distinct Goodfellas flavour, Narcos follows the country’s extraordinarily successful cocaine trade and the gangs that profited, lorded over by the long shadow of the infamous Pablo Escobar. Mixing genuine archive footage and photographs alongside the drama, the sprawling yet taut storyline serves to educate as well as entertain. The result is a feature that manages to touch upon documentary territory without ever losing forward momentum for its main purpose, the drama.
Each act builds on layers of shock, twists and moments of stomach-churning tension – sensations due in no small part to a quite brilliant performance by Wagner Moura as Escobar. From his very first appearance, the sheer reach of Escobar’s influence over life in Columbia is made terrifyingly clear with his tentacles infiltrating every avenue of public life – as portrayed, a ‘godfather’ of an entire country.
To its credit, Narcos is richly capable of producing moments of empathy when, for example, witnessing Escobar’s dreams of legitimacy crumble under the weight of his past. For each rise, a fall, as any built-up emotion or understanding is just as easily taken crashing down to Earth with the scale of the atrocities carried out in his name.
Less of an anti-hero and more of an anti-human, the man completely dominates every scene. In fact, the characterisation is so strong that although we are consistently presented with likeable and varied supporting characters, the periods in which Moura’s Escobar is absent can make sections of an episode feel incomplete.
This is most pronounced during the home scenes of agent Steve Murphy and his wife, Connie. Despite their best attempts to ground the show in the familiar, they sometimes struggle with what is a rather heavily telegraphed storyline driven by little more than sheer bloody-mindedness. It’s unfortunate that you can spend much of their screen time wishing they’d pop on a plane back to the States so that you can get back to the infinitely more interesting tale of the ‘narcos’! Thankfully, rather than being an integral part of the tale itself, it is clear that their home life is merely a vehicle used to give the story – and the viewer – a sense of normality.
That said, it is a minor, even nit-picking complaint. Likewise the fact that Narcos rattles along at such a pace that long periods of time flash by in a single episode. Given Narcos’ strengths, it may appear odd to complain when episodes cram too much into an hour rather than expand on plot points as you’d expect. But it does occasionally leave an impression that important events are glossed over in a rush to get to the next development.
Beyond that questionable tempo, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Columbia is a stunning country and the sumptuous visuals, not least the sweeping vistas of the city of Medellin buried deep within the mountainside, are a regular treat. The locations and attention to detail in recreating this turbulent period of history will make you fall in love and feel terrified of Columbia in equal measure. Narcos’ majestic, swooping landscape shots combine with brutal scenes of innocents caught in the cross-fire and a few almost unbearably tense stand-offs to leave a lasting impression of a paradise gone awry.
By the time you reach its conclusion, Narcos will leave you with an empty cavern in your stomach – a desperate need to see what transpires next and a nagging temptation to read up on the real-world subject matter. I for one am trying to resist a quick Google lest I spoil any further series for myself. In Netflix’s growing library of self-produced programming, Narcos deserves to sit front and centre; a lush and unflinching portrayal of a country whose natural beauty was too good to be true.