A show of the caliber of Ozark doesn’t do much to re-invent the wheel. There have been plenty of shows that have come before, streaming or cable with the same basic premise that have all stood out amongst an over saturated genre. Ozark created by Bill Dubuque & Mark Williams is a clear standout in the crime genre the moment episode 1 starts. After the Tadum booms like it always does Ozark wastes no time at all establishing its differences. And the reason to either binge the entirety of the show in one sitting or give it a more time to wash over you all starts with lead actor and frequent director Jason Bateman.
Monologuing every slang word used to describe money to start the series off, Marty Byrde (Bateman) is a successful financial planner in Chicago living the American dream – A wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and two children Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) (If Skylar looks familiar, he does, he plays a young Matt Murdock in Daredevil on Netflix). Things aren’t all as they seem – Marty moonlights as a drug cartel’s top money launderer and Wendy is cheating on her husband, which Marty knows of and watches the video sent by his private investigator. What sets the events in motion in Ozark is thanks to Marty’s business partner Bruce (Josh Randall), who has been skimming millions of dollars from the cartel. Bruce and Marty get paid a visit from Del (Esai Morales) who spares Marty to let him uproot his family and move to the Lake of the Ozarks to invest in small companies and make Del’s money back.
Simple enough to follow, Ozark establishes itself quickly in its 10-episode season, not wasting a minute of time with filler. It’s no shock that Del would spare Marty in the first episode, but after that, trying to predict anything that will follow is not easy. Series creators Dubuque and Williams craft a well thought out narrative that will shock the senses into submission. The Byrde family, no matter what they do, who they make deals with to launder the cartel’s money just cannot catch a break.
Bateman most known for his comedic roles, transforms into a cold, distant and calculating criminal posing as a businessman eager to help others with their dying businesses. Marty is not a character you can trust in the same vein as Tony Soprano or Walter White. Yet Batman gives Marty that sympathetic edge to make him a likeable character. Mainly surrounding the infidelity of Wendy’s affair. Wendy and Marty are broken – they aren’t married, they are business partners who will do anything to keep their family alive. And they mean literally anything.
For 4 of the 10 episodes, Bateman steps behind the camera – the first two episodes and the final two. Capturing the big moments that certainly deliver on the shock value of Ozark. The Ozark’s aren’t as they seem – buried deep within is a town run by the Snell’s – Jacob (Peter Mullan) and Darlene (Lisa Emery). The Snell’s are equally as dangerous as the cartel; owning a poppy farm that supplies opiates to its clients on the lake away from the police’s jurisdiction. And in comes Marty promising to build a church for pastor Mason Young (Michael Mosley) which would eat up a ton of the laundering but simultaneously crippling the Snell’s distribution operations.
Instantly, Ozark’s tone and mood stand out among the technical aspects of the series. The constant dull color palette juxtaposes the dread and fear the Byrde family is facing if Marty cannot deliver on his promise. Every action though an impulse is well thought out – Trusting Marty is easy when it comes to laundering – he makes it look effortless given the amount of stress and turmoil he placed his family in.
And the show does a well enough job within its realm of authenticity. Like bringing in an FBI agent and a hedge fund manager into the writer’s room. All politics, money discussions feel as realistic as possible – I don’t have any expertise in any of the topics, but Bateman and the rest of the ensemble cast spit the lines back effortlessly.
Speaking of the ensemble cast, rivaling Marty is Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner). Ruth is equally as cunning, clever, ruthless, and dangerous when she’s completely comfortable. Garner’s dense southern accent and resting bitch face makes her mesmerizing to watch on screen. Whenever she speaks, Ruth commands the screen. Going from stealing Marty’s money to plotting to kill him to working for him and becoming totally loyal to him, Ruth will do whatever it takes for her family including Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and Three (Carson Holmes).
Possibly the strongest aspect in the first season is the writing. Sure tone, production and performances all are top tier, but the writing heightens all the other aspects mentioned. 10-episodes is the sweet spot for a Netflix original – all the original Marvel series were just too long. While a specific episode may not be a filler from one narrative to the next, certain storylines feel out of place that slow the season down and almost make it difficult to care but then the scene shifts back to a Byrde member or Ruth, and all is forgiven. Any storyline involving Russ Langmore (Marc Menchaca) and Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) I didn’t care about.
In its first season, Ozark isn’t quite the home run as say Breaking Bad or The Sopranos which it takes influence from. The bad guy being the protagonist still works in Ozark’s favor since there are forces of nature that are more evil within. But the stellar writing, dreary tone, and outstanding performances and chemistry between Bateman, Garner and Linney does well to balance the good vs evil to keep Ozark a thrilling crime drama worth investing time into. There’s no iconic theme music “Woke Up This Morning” or riff created by the show’s creator. Instead, each title screen has the letter “O” with different symbols representing the episodes plot that also happen to spell out the name of the show. Though it does have some filler moments and characters, overall, season 1 provides a solid foundation for the Byrde family to expand their footprint on the Lake of the Ozarks. And if the finale of season 1 is any indication of what could happen – this show is just getting started.
Created By: Bill Dubuque & Mark Williams
Directed By: Jason Bateman, Daniel Sackheim, Andrew Bernstein, Ellen Kuras
Music By: Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Cinematography: Ben Kutchins & Armando Sales
Starring: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jordana Spiro, Esai Morales, Jason Butler Harner, Peter Mullan, Lisa Emery, Charlie Tahan
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: July 21, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%
My Score: 3.5 out of 5