Netflix Season 1
Are we living in the age of television the same way the 19th century was the age of the novel and the 20th was the age of the film? Specifically, is long form television cable series- the format shared by shows on HBO, Showtime and AMC, the contemporary equivalent of the 90 minute feature film or the triple decker novel?
The answer to this question must be an increasingly unqualified, "Yes." All the signs are there: an explosion of critical interest mixed with wariness at the increase in artistic product "worthy" of notice; an increase in the actual size of the audience for a particular worth of art, whether one looks at multi-platform viewings of basic cable shows, or the debut audience for the first episode of a particular show; weakness in the audience for competing popular art forms.
I've seen it here- the most popular post was something I wrote about the amazing Vikings show on History Channel. Eleven thousand page views? That is some popular television. And, when I wrote the post it was just with an eye towards saying, "Hey, this is some creditable narrative television about an interesting historical period." Vikings wasn't and isn't, the greatest thing ever, but it is something more than mindless pablum, the traditional measuring stick for the narrative quality of scripted television drama.
Like all narrative art forms of the last three hundred years, television has an enduring fascination with crime and criminals. You could argue that the three best television shows are ALL about the crime, if you take The Wire, Sopranos and Breaking Bad as your top three shows. As a criminal defense lawyers, I've stayed away from The Wire and Breaking Bad as simply being too close to my daily experience. Practicing in Federal Court, I've learned plenty about international drug trafficking between Mexico and the United States, and the internal distribution of drugs within the United States, and the street level sale of drugs inside the United States.
Narcos is distant enough from my every day experience to be interesting, but it's not quite as good as your top crime driven television shows. The narrative is a conventional blow-by-blow of the rise and fall of the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar, told largely from the perspective of an embedded DEA agent, a man who brings his wife to Colombia with him. High points for narrative accuracy and newsworthiness, fewer points for style.
There is none of the moral ambiguity that characterizes the criminal heroes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. Escobar is a charming bad guy, but he's not a tragic hero. Nor is the element of surprise much at play. I'm sure there are people watching this show on Netflix who have legit never heard of Pablo Escobar, but if you have, you know how the story ends.
Narcos has plenty of sex, plenty of violence, plenty of stereotypical behavior from Latin Ameican drug lords. The Medellin Cartel is so far in the rear view mirror that we can begin to treat that time as an absurd fantasia. Narcos itself hints at this possibility by opening with a voice over quote about how Colombia is where the literary form of "magical realism" was invented. It's a hopeful note to sound at the beginning of the ten episode first season, but magic in the script or execution is in short supply.
Another winning element is the inclusion of the Colombian Communist guerrilla groups and, later in the series, a Basque bomb maker imported from Spain. The struggle against Latin American Communism is a very strong secondary theme all throughout Narcos. A major break through in terms of escalating American government support is a photograph of Escobar unloading cocaine on a Nicaraguan tarmac with a top Sandinista during the height of the 80s Cold War.
If any of this sounds intriguing, I would at least recommend giving Narcos a one or two episode test drive.