Ozark

3 out of 5

Created by: Bill Dubuque

covers season 1

I didn’t unenjoy Ozark.  There’s one main aspect of it that I quite liked and felt was handled well, that kept me watching and moderately invested beyond the goalpost of being a casual viewing.  I liked its paced rollout of noteworthy characters, and its mostly focused plot threading.  Meanwhile, as a lack of actual things occurred and we got into a waiting game of “what will go wrong next,” my brain wandered into the usual Netflix weeds: is streaming always the most ideal consumption method?  Does it readjust the writing process unitentionally, bloating some seasons and short-changing tension?

Not always, of course, but Ozark does suffer from this syndrome, and its extended angst causes what is shot and told like a dark noir to start to come across as a Fargo-esque comedy, with Missouri Southern drawl replacing the Dakota twang.  This would be fine and good if intended, but the show’s general solemnity suggests otherwise, and the resultant tonal wishy-washiness dilutes much of whatever tension was established.

Flipping this opinion around, and accounting for my “I was okay with this show” three star rating, the fact that Ozark proceeds at a somewhat sleepy pace makes these issues not much of a concern until late in the season, and the well cast actors present compelling and watchable characters who actually tend to speak like real people most of the time.  Beyond that, as mentioned above, there was one main hook that had me intrigued: honesty.

Ozark has been compared to Breaking Bad, which is a tunnel-vision comparison in that the lead – Marty Byrde, played by Jason Bateman (and no offense to the guy – as he fits the role – but this is still the same dry-witted character he plays in every film / show) – seems like your average Joe but is actually up to no good.  But there is no ‘breaking,’ here: Marty’s money laundering for the mob is well in play when we join him; his wife’s (Laura Linney) affair is equally fully going on.  We don’t see a decline, we just see the fallout when Marty’s partner gets caught stealing and Marty makes a last-ditch pitch to recoup the funds with a scheme… in the Ozarks.  So he uproots the fam and then we get ten episodes of him trying and failing to get his business(es) going.  Marty is not an evil man; nor is he good.  The same goes for his wife, son and daughter, and most of the people we meet, including a manipulative local (Julia Garner), a jaded marina owner (Jordana Spiro), and a moral-tale spinnin’ farmer (Peter Mullan).  And while there’s likely a point about relative good mixed in there, Ozark’s writers aren’t sharp enough to make us contemplate that – good and evil are just plot threads – and while the actors do an excellent job of carrying the material (which is essentially well written, despite the lacking depth), there’s also an incredible emotional disconnect in many scenes; people seem to under respond.  It all matches the sleepy vibe, and  there’s some back-and-forth specifically regarding Marty’s coldness, but again, these are all surface observations that don’t feel like they need to be tied to deeper analysis.  This wide-eyed, blatant presentation is also what ends up fueling that slightly unintended darkly comic vibe.

But back to honesty: Ya see, Marty’s family knows all about his dealings.  They know why they’ve moved.  Marty openly acknowledges his wife’s affair.  Most of Marty’s laundering operations end up not being done in secret.  Hiding information from other characters is my least favorite plot extension device, because it’s rarely realistic or logical.  So I was sincerely pleased with Ozark’s characters being so up front with each other.  This necessitates the writers adding a couple episodes of filler to pad us to a full season, but it’s a fair trade.

So that’s the gist: It’s not Breaking Bad; it’s above average writing and acting but it’s skin deep.

He wipes his hands, and now adds an addendum:

I hated Ozark.  …From a particular perspective.  To jump back on the Breaking Bad thing for a moment, while that show was airing, Walt’s wife, played by Anna Gunn, was the recipient of hate mail.  People liked Walt, and felt that her character was in the wrong.  And this was part of the trick of BB, taking a likeable character and making him pretty evil.  What’s interesting is that, in rewatching the show, Walt is pretty despicable from the start; he just gets the guts / opportunity to act on his while, and his wife’s struggles are a pretty realistic take on someone stuck between a rock and a hard place.  But the creator of Ozark – Bill Dubuque – seemingly never understood that secondary analysis.  Ozark is almost like that hate mail: it glorifies Marty’s position as caretaker and vilifies his wife and her actions.  She is sorry; he is taking care of business.  And throughout the series, woman are treated in this fashion.  It’s not overt, which is what makes it more offensive: It seems assumed.  Marty has a dream sequence in which a hooker tells him how honourable he is; his mobster boss compliments him on the same; his sins are lesser because he never cheated.

There’s disturbing, unintended subtext there.

So those are the two sides: One which enjoyed a distracting, competent, low-stakes accounting noir, and one which was surprised at the ignorance both Laura Linney and Jason Bateman indirectly supported via their characters.  Make whatever rating of that you will.

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