Netflix’s Narcos Is Addictive, Smart Entertainment

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Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Narcos. Photo: Daniel Daza/Netflix

Netflix's new series Narcos is a meaty dramatization of the rise of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, as narrated by one of the American DEA agents trying to take him down. The voice-over lends the show the almost dreamy air of a legend or fable, a gather round, children, for the story of the most notorious drug kingpin in living memory, and the show itself acknowledges in its awkward opening moments that this saga is in some ways part of the Colombian tradition of magical realism, that the story of Pablo Escobar is both true and surreal at the same time. It's an accurate assessment, and one Narcos additionally plays with by including real footage and photographs woven into its fictionalization. Actual but fantastical, a man and a myth, a business and a scourge, plus several governments waging a futile, grotesque war. Cocaine: It's a hell of a drug.

Narcos, from executive producer José Padilha (Elite Squad), executive producer Eric Newman, and creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro, is frequently in subtitled Spanish, as it bounces between Escobar, his associates, and various anti-trafficking operatives. The show lives and dies by its Escobar, Brazil's Wagner Moura — who didn't speak Spanish when he took the role. He's fantastic; patient, understated. Normal, even. "I'm not a rich person. I'm a poor person with money," Escobar says in one of the early episodes. Is that bullshit? Sort of, but also of course not, if you think about how class structures work. Moura delivers the line with such ease that it sounds almost like Escobar is reciting a popular saying — and it's impossible to tell if he thinks it's true about himself, or something that he thinks is a good thing to say he thinks is true about himself. It's a moment that hits right on Narcos's affection for pulling in opposite directions.

In addition to being a terrifically solid ten episodes, Narcos feels like the most of-its-moment show that any show has ever been — a distillation of the best, or at least the trendiest, aspects of contemporary television and film. It's set mostly during the Reagan administration (The Americans, Deutschland 83, the upcoming Wicked City), and many scenes are entirely subtitled (OITNB, The Americans, Switched at Birth, Jane the Virgin). It tells — well, retells — a familiar story, about someone with a recognizable name ("franchises"). It's based on actual people and events (Show Me a Hero), though there are some liberties here and there (Masters of Sex), and it stars an international cast largely not famous in America (Sense8). There's a wisecracking but also maybe a little bit wise cop (everything) who sounds not unlike Taylor Kitsch (True Detective) when he speaks to us in helpful voice-overs (Mr. Robot). The show is also in some capacity foreshadowed on Entourage (Aquaman).

That currentness isn't a bad thing, more just a curious one. Presumably, Netflix executives crowd into a TV laboratory, grasping tiny bottles of other shows' essences, following elaborate rituals and guidelines, and dripping in precise amounts from carefully measured pipettes into a simmering cauldron until a show takes shape, right in the vapor. That's just how TV gets made these days, probably.

And if that's the system from whence Narcos emerged, then the recipes are working. For a show that's so often about conflicting dualities, it still doesn't feel wishy-washy. The pacing is deliberate, the characters precisely drawn, the aesthetic specific but totally unfussy. There are tense raids and hundreds, maybe thousands, of gunshots, but the show doesn't feel indulgent. There's also a sense of scope. Boyd Holbrook, as real-life DEA agent Steve Murphy, sometimes narrates with a sense of marvel about the whole enterprise. "Bad guys have to get lucky every time," he tells us. "Good guys only have to get lucky once." And yet years go by, people are killed — a lot of people — heads of state assassinated. The show acknowledges the overwhelming violence and disregard for human life endemic to the criminalized drug trade, but like any entertainment about organized crime, doesn't dwell on carnage so much as include it in montages set to mood-establishing music. The similarities to Goodfellas abound, both content-wise and stylistically. Narcos always feels like it's moving, with a sense of restlessness though rather than one of urgency.

The restlessness and the jostling make Narcos better in discrete chunks than in a blaze-of-glory marathon — which itself appears to be part of Netflix's emerging savor-over-binge model. Narcos is proof that a show can be good — thoughtful, sharp, confident — without causing that life-ruining, Portlandia-BSG-sketch-level compulsive watching. Consider it a new, healthier kind of addiction.