There are a lot of things about season one of Narcos that really should not have worked. It is yet another TV show about a Charismatic Difficult Man, filled with familiar inclinations toward violence, women who are solely sex objects, and all the usual rhythms of fictional drug trading. (I’ve now seen so many leather bags unzipped to reveal piles of cash and/or white plastic bricks strapped up with tape that my eye greets them warmly, like a frequently returning character actor who always plays a security officer.) Most notably, and a topic of significant criticism, Narcos also has a voice-over narrator. David Sims describes it as “more like a Ken Burns documentary than an engaging serialized drama,” and on Vox, Todd VanderWerff’s piece on season one is titled “Netflix’s Narcos is like a bland guy reading you the Wikipedia entry on Pablo Escobar.”
Here’s a counterargument from a voice-over apologist: There’s nothing inherently wrong with a Ken Burns documentary style for a series that explicitly aims toward factual and historical representation. And, in fact, the voice-over is a useful framing device for the first season of the show. The trouble is that the things that made it work for season one — the things that made it work even though voice-overs are often obvious to the point of parody — are also the same things that make it feel stilted and useless for season two.
Narcos, a series whose first two seasons have charted the rise and fall of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is narrated by Steve Murphy, a character on the show and also a real-life DEA agent who helped track and take down Escobar. As the first season covers 17 years of Colombian drug history, Murphy’s voice-over acts like, yes, a documentary voice-over. He gives fast summaries of who the powerful families are; he situates and contextualizes major movements in the narcotics industry; a scene pauses in a freeze frame on someone’s face and Murphy tells us, “Remember this guy, he’ll come back later.”
Murphy’s voice-over is the occasionally too-obvious glue that holds the whole rapid-fire thing together, weaving Escobar’s rise through his relationship with his wife, his desire for political power, his appeal to Medellín’s poor, and the challenges of managing his burgeoning empire. But he is also a character in the show. Crucially, he’s a minor character. Even if you could set aside Wagner Moura’s performance as Escobar — which you cannot and should not do, because it’s fabulous — Pablo Escobar is the unquestioned center of Narcos’ first two seasons. The inner workings of his mind; the complicated psychology of a person who deeply loves his family, works to promote the poor, and mercilessly slaughters his enemies; his intelligence and ambition — these are the things we want to see and learn about. It’s hard to care much at all about ol’ Steve.
And here’s the thing: It is fundamentally weird to have your narrator be a minor character. The role of narrator necessarily creates intimacy with the audience, and if the narrator is also a character, it’s a de facto argument for centrality. If you’re the narrator, we assume your perspective matters, and that you have access and knowledge we care about. Steve Murphy is great at giving us a wave of the exposition fairy’s wand, but intimate and revealing à la the narrator in Mr. Robot he is not.
Still, Murphy’s narration in season one works, and is actually surprisingly canny, for the exact same reason it’s also so odd. He is a minor character, and as such, his narration continually creates a distance between the audience and the show’s protagonist. It feeds into and supports the thing that makes the first season of Narcos so unexpectedly compelling — a whirlwind of mushrooming cocaine production, a ballooning drug trade that operates on a massive global scale, and one man at the center of it, fascinating and evil and inscrutable. Moura’s Escobar is so compelling that you’re immediately drawn to him. Murphy, frustratingly trapped on the outside, forces us to see him from a distance. He keeps us at arm’s length from Escobar, rooting us instead inside Murphy’s half-disgusted, half-admiring perception of him. As the season goes on, we’re under no delusions that Murphy is a paragon of honesty. If anything, he’s as morally murky as Escobar himself. But Murphy’s so much less magnetic and intriguing than his leading man, he mostly serves as a foil, showing off just how much more charismatic Escobar really is.
And for all its very real weirdness, the minor-character narrator is an intriguing way to deal with the problems of telling historical stories. We already know the history — it can feel inevitable and unsurprising. We already know Pablo’s a strange, bad, ambitious dude. What better way to present him than to show him through the eyes of someone marginal to his story, who can inform us and admire him while also loathing him? In a twisted way, Murphy is like an inverse Forrest Gump. He’s perpetually on the edge of the story we know, but rather than asking us to focus on Murphy, Murphy’s narration constantly drags our eye outward, to the bigger context and the less familiar history. He is a tour guide to a huge city, a local who can give you personal details but who also helps guide you through a mystifying maze.
Which is also why, in Narcos season two, that same narration becomes so much less effective. It takes up about a year in Escobar’s life, compared with the nearly two decades that make up season one. The same kinds of things are happening — drug busts, betrayals, near-misses — but on a much more compact scale. The genius of Murphy’s narration in season one is that it lets you zoom out of the story, seeing whole big blocks of a timeline go flying past, before then zeroing in again on a particular moment. In season two, where there are fewer massive political movements and a smaller cast of characters, having a narrator like that becomes ridiculous. He’s still a tour guide, but he’s that weird tour guide in a tiny one-room museum, and you wish he’d just back up a little bit and leave you alone.
When your story is about sketching a complicated history of a global operation, a minor-character narrator like Steve Murphy is a pretty brilliant and unusual way to balance all of the competing challenges. When, as happens in Narcos’s second season, your story is about a powerful man being inexorably drawn into a smaller and smaller cage, the guy in your ear whispering, “Gee, this cage is getting claustrophobic!” is no longer as welcome.