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Ozark Is the Platonic Ideal of a Netflix Drama

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

It’s easy to relate to the main characters of Ozark, Netflix’s hit crime drama. No, seriously! You don’t need to be part of an elaborate criminal scheme to understand the saga of Marty and Wendy Byrde, white-collar money launderers drawn deeper and deeper into a drug cartel. As the show paints the Byrdes and their children and associates into a corner over and over again, usually allowing them to escape right into another, smaller corner, their reaction echoes the viewer’s: How does this shit keep happening, and how the hell are they gonna get out of it? It’s a formula that makes for gripping viewing.

Gripping? Yes. Great? Though it’s often talked about in the same breath as the likes of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, two other shows about family men behaving badly, those comparisons don’t quite fly. Ozark is like those shows, sure. But prestige-TV analogies fail to recognize the difference between this series and the others: This is a Netflix show, designed by creators Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, showrunner Chris Mundy, and producer-director-star Jason Bateman, with Netflix’s binge model in mind. You’re meant to get onboard quickly and stay onboard for the duration. As such, Ozark’s creative decisions make it the Platonic ideal of a Netflix drama. It is its own unique beast.

It’s not that those comparisons are unreasonable, of course. “White-collar family man dabbles in crime and gets in over his head with a Mexican drug cartel” would serve as an accurate summary of Ozark or Breaking Bad in a pinch. But Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White’s descent into crime: his cancer diagnosis, his desperation to provide for his family upon his death, his discovery of the crystal-meth market he can exploit with his skills as a chemist, his close calls with various murderous criminals, and his slow transformation into a ruthless crime boss in his own right, until his own family, realizing who and what he is, can’t stand the sight of him.

Ozark, by contrast, begins with both Marty and Wendy Byrde knee-deep in criminality. By the time we meet them, Marty has already been laundering money for the cartel for years, and Wendy has known all along. He’s already seen what the cartel is capable of, witnessing a murder immediately upon agreeing to clean their cash. His marriage is already on the rocks, with Wendy conducting an affair as a prelude to leaving him, and the relationship between them so rocky that the cartel actually offers to kill her if it will make their moneyman Marty happy.

In essence, Ozark takes the plot of Breaking Bad as read. It assumes we know all the basic beats of this kind of story, so there’s no need to belabor them by repeating them for an audience who’s seen it all before. It’s not so much breaking new ground as it is resuming construction in a prepared building site. This makes the experience of getting into the show feel seamless and smooth, provided you’ve already watched this kind of show elsewhere — which, roughly 20 years into the prestige-TV crime-drama era, you almost certainly have. You’re not going to ask yourself, “What the hell am I watching?” You know perfectly well. That’s key to Ozark’s success.

So is its prestige-y color palette. There are a few color schemes shows can adopt to make themselves look like Serious Business — green-brown murk is a popular one — and Ozark has selected a blue tint for its imagery. It makes everything look steely, somber, cold, and somehow unforgiving. It’s like using a prestige-TV cheat code: If you’re familiar with how such shows look, Ozark becomes that much easier to get into. But that Ozark blue-green has the added feature of reminding us of the location: the Lake of the Ozarks and the lush vegetation that surrounds it. It’s redolent of mist coming off the water, of dawn seen through a canopy of leaves, of cool mornings and humid evenings. To quote the great George Costanza, it’s the mood of Morning Mist. It may be the kind of coloration you’ve seen before, but Ozark works it to its unique advantage.

And with a well-established sense of place, you can get away with rerunning some tried-and-true crime-genre plots and beats. In one early episode, a montage that explains how Marty launders money is set to the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” — a music cue crime-cinema expert Martin Scorsese used when he revealed how Joe Pesci’s crew operated in Casino. If you’ve seen that movie, there’s not much going on in season three’s casino plot you haven’t seen before, either. Which is fine, as far as it goes — there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel — but it does help explain why Ozark goes down so smooth.

Depending on your perspective, Ozark does this either despite or because of the way it overloads the plot. Marty & Co. can barely go one day without receiving a new ultimatum from one of their crime-boss associates, giving them two months or two days or 24 hours or until nightfall or whatever to get this or that seemingly impossible task done. (To be fair, this plot-by-ultimatum technique reached its apex in season two; by season three it was mostly abandoned.)

And who issues these orders? An ever-increasing number of criminal factions and power brokers, including the cartel, their lawyer Helen Pierce, the Kansas City mob, a right-wing political kingmaker named Charles Wilkes, a local hillbilly organized-crime ring run by a fractious family called the Snells, and a family of dirt-poor, petty-crime grifters called the Langmores. You’d almost have to try to slow the plot down with so many gun-toting motivators hanging around. How will the Byrdes get out of this one? Watch the next episode and find out!

But you need something of genuinely artistic nutritional value to go along with the propulsive plotting and the Netflix standard of “If you like this kind of thing, this is also the kind of thing you’ll like.” That’s where the performances come in, with a broad swath of the main and supporting cast doing crackerjack work. They elevate Ozark beyond its prestige-lite peers. They’re the vegetables (mm, delicious vegetables) you get to eat while you’re spoon-feeding yourself Netflix sugar.

Foremost among these actors is Julia Garner, who plays the Langmore family’s de facto leader, Ruth. Garner is a revelation in the role, a ball of ambition, insecurity, anger, trauma, talent, love for her young cousins, and rage against her shit circumstances, wound so tightly that she threatens to vibrate right off the screen. She’s an object lesson in how to make a supporting player into a co-protagonist.

The protagonists themselves? Not bad! As Marty, Bateman is almost preternaturally calm, as if all his emotional and intellectual energy has been rerouted to the task of keeping himself and his family alive; when he does snap and get angry or sad, the effect is all the more powerful. Laura Linney plays Wendy as more open and expressive, but prone to impulsive decisions that probably stem from the character’s difficult childhood.

Among the younger cast, Sofia Hublitz stands out as Charlotte Byrde, investing the umpteenth “teenage daughter on a fancy-pants anti-hero drama” with dimensionality instead of making her a flat, sullen, seen-it-before deal; Charlie Tahan as Ruth’s sad-eyed cousin Wyatt makes an impression as well. The supporting players range from Janet McTeer as the imperious and dangerous lawyer character Helen to Marc Menchaca as the closeted and lonesome Russ Langmore to Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s unmedicated, bipolar brother Ben, who came out of nowhere to serve as season three’s emotional anchor. It’s tough to be bored by actors willing to take chances the way these are.

If the show doesn’t feel similarly risky, well, that’s not really the point, is it? Ozark exists to deliver on its promise of highly watchable, deadly serious crime high jinks. Its creative and aesthetic choices are designed to make those high jinks engaging without rocking the boat too much. But it never insults your intelligence, and in the case of individual performances — Ozark’s real creative gold mine — actively rewards it. Prestige TV? More like Pringles TV: Once you pop, you can’t stop.

Ozark Is the Platonic Ideal of a Netflix Drama