Netflix’s latest original series Narcos is about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar as well as the DEA agents who hunted him. It’s not my favorite show, but it is interesting enough and does enough stuff right that it’s worth reviewing. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in. Trigger Warning: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Blood, Guns, Language
Narcos has all the technical expertise that one has come to expect from a Netflix series. There just isn’t anything else to say. So, that leaves the narrative, which is worth talking about.
Beware of spoilers ye who enter
This is a period piece that uses actual people from history, so its relation to factual history is important. Each episode opens with a disclaimer “This television series is inspired by true events. Some of the characters, names, businesses, incidents and certain locations and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.” At first, I assumed this was primarily a way to protect themselves from lawsuits. A cursory Google search revealed that the show was taking somewhat major liberties in the chronology of events.
Fidelity to the source material is a virtue, not the only virtue. This is true for any adaption, but there are major differences between say Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien and Gone with the Wind. While the former has politics involved on some level, as all works are political; the latter has politics in the forefront. Now, I don’t really know much about the era in question, just what I gleamed from Wikipedia so it’s hard to pinpoint what political message it’s actually arguing for.
There are several reasons for this confusion. First, there’s the issue of how the show handles narration. It has Agent Murphy, one of the main characters reminiscing about the era. While most of the narration is fairly neutral, there are just enough instances of him being jaded and not as jingoistic compared to his modern day counterpart that the message becomes muddled. In general though I’d say the show leans towards a somewhat critical view of the U.S.. While the people who are hunting Escobar engage in a fair amount of torture, I never really got the sense that the show wanted me to support it outside of comparison. While the Search Bloc might beat people to death and shot up clubs, at least it wasn’t blowing up civilian airliners. The biggest reason that I don’t want to comment on the show’s politics is because I just don’t’ know that much about Colombian history. The show should be treated like all historical fiction, not inherently true. Although this show has gotten me interested in the time period, which is a success in its own right.
What sets Narcos apart is how it relies upon actual news footage to contextualize events. This is fine; the show is based off of historical events after all. It did accentuate one of my key problems with the show though. The narrative felt timeless, not in the sense of the story is universal, but in the sense of when things were happening. Things happened, but it was hard to appreciate the gravity of decisions and the arcs of characters. Characters responded to one another’s actions, but there was no telling how long these things lasted in the grand scheme of things. The result is that the storytelling feels more episodic; things that happened early on just stop mattering as the viewer is invited to focus on the current thing. This doesn’t really work on Netflix, where most shows are available all at once and binge watching is common.
Perhaps the biggest example of this is how the show starts out in medias res with the La Dispenseria massacre and Poison’s death. The event is set up as being a major turning point and gives the viewer something to work off of as a reference point timeline wise. In actuality, it’s a relatively minor event and any attempt at using it as a chronological anchor is useless.
This timeless sense seems to be intentional though. The show opens with an explanation of magical realism and the show draws heavily on it in an early episode. The idea of dreams and reality mixing together is interesting, but it’s not a rock solid reading as the idea isn’t substantiated throughout the entire season. Also, it seems like an idea that would work in narrative’s resolution, something that we’re not close to. Given that the show has already been renewed for a second season, this will be the most interesting thing going forward.
Narcos isn’t the best show, and you have to add several qualifiers before I’d call it the best in any given category. It’s still an interesting show and is worth giving a shot if the subject matter is interesting. Till next time.