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All I ask from a television show is for it to hold my attention and not feel like a drag on my time. Some of the best shows, up to and including Breaking Bad and The Leftovers, have started slowly, required patience, and then ended up cultural touchstones. Seven hours into Netflix’s new original series, Ozark, I realized something important and sobering.
This isn’t fun to watch. Not at all.
While the premise is intriguing and the cast impressive, Ozark quickly became a slog. It was so bleak, so full of unlikable people, so inundated with the worst parts of humanity, that it affects your mood in a profoundly negative way. I was always ready for an episode to end, I needed to take a break after each one, and I continually kept counting down how many more I had left before I was done with the first season.
What’s funny about Ozark is nothing. There are a few jokes, but unlike Breaking Bad, which is the series Netflix and the show creators have compared it to, the laughs are almost all birthed from nastiness, not whimsy.
Walter White was presented for at least a little while as someone for whom the audience could feel sympathy. Marty Byrde is masturbating in his car and lying to everyone in sight before the first episode ends. One thing Ozark has going for it is Jason Bateman (Byrde), who is that rare actor that can play comedy, black comedy, and pure darkness.
Bateman has shown range from Arrested Development to 2015’s underrated thriller, The Gift, and he’s cast beautifully in the role of a stateside financial planner that is merely a front for his job as a money launderer for a powerful Mexican drug cartel.
He also directed the first episode, and did a wonderful job. He’s a true talent, and his presence does make Ozark far more watchable than it would otherwise be. If I didn’t like the lead actor as much as I do Bateman, no way would I have made it to the finish line. You try to get behind Marty, because you want desperately to be in the moment with him…
…but he’s an asshole. Every time you almost like him, and occasionally you’re close, you’re reminded he’s a dick. And his wife’s an asshole too.
Academy Award nominee Laura Linney plays his wife, Wendy, and she too is excellent. But you hate her guts almost immediately, because before you get a chance to know her, you find out her dirty little secret. What she’s not is a bad mom, just as Marty isn’t a bad dad, but both are BAD PEOPLE. And therein lies the problem with Ozark.
There’s no one on this show to root for consistently, or more specifically, no one to buy into long term that has a key role. My comparison for Ozark would not be Breaking Bad, but a mix between a watered down Bloodline (which is damning in itself) and a very depressing, half-assed Justified. The “clan” mentality of the criminals in Missouri is awfully reminiscent of Boyd Crowder, Ellstin Limehouse, or Mags Bennett. It’s backwoods, family, traditional, old style crime, where murder and treachery are never off the table when business is involved.
That’s not a bad thing on the surface, as those storylines all worked to varying degrees on Justified, but there was a major difference between that show and Ozark. One of the primary reasons for the success of Justified was a witty, charming Raylan Givens, equipped with one liners to match his trigger finger. Then, there was the brilliant Boyd Crowder character, which was an amalgam of good and bad played to perfection by Walton Goggins. You could root for Raylan (or for that matter, Boyd) in a way you can’t back Ozark‘s Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner). While Jason is good, the character is too weird and obtuse to be approachable.
You see, even the “good” guys in Ozark aren’t pristine, and the various shades of gray that permeate the white hats in the series ensure you’re frowning at all times while watching. That’s simply not a good thing. Even a tough watch should be entertaining. There are many times in the first ten hours of Ozark where I was miserable during the experience. I was so relieved when it was over.
That’s not to say it’s a terrible show, because it’s not, but any chance it has of being anything more than an okay to decent drama are dashed by the decisions to remove any semblance of fun and excitement. Breaking Bad spaced out its big moments and taught a masterclass on pacing. Ozark drops multiple bodies within its first hour, and later feels the need to show very uncomfortable sex scenes, plus a small boy that enjoys playing with the innards of dead animals.
Everything presented feels slightly rushed and immediate, as if the writers couldn’t wait to get naked in front of you as fast as they possibly could, rather than waiting for the waiter to bring the check.
Yes folks, Ozark chose to go after every salacious angle it could find, exploit it, and utilize it to a comical degree. When I first watched The Shield, I hated it, because I saw a jar of urine and heard a lot of randomly placed mild curse words, and generally felt it was trying to be provocative and shocking more than smart. I quickly found out that wasn’t the case, but that same feeling exists within Ozark.
But here, it never lets up. Here, what I felt about it from the start is absolutely true through the season finale. It’s at times disgusting, very over-the-top, and the potential substance within the idea isn’t realized. Unlike a series like Quarry, which was sadly canceled after just one brilliant season last year, Ozark‘s intensity feels manufactured, and occasionally even ridiculous.
Quarry is an apt mention here because several actors appeared in both shows, with none more important than Peter Mullan, whose voice fits so beautifully. He’s a charming psychopath, and he’s exceptional throughout Ozark, just as he was last year’s hidden gem on Cinemax. The real star performance may be from Julia Garner, who you may know better as Kimberly Breland on The Americans. As Ruth, Julia gets the role of a vulnerable, but badass young woman.
She goes through various stages of internal and external conflict, but that character is the most interesting, by far, of anyone on Ozark. Garner’s performance stands out above everyone else’s, including Bateman and Linney, which is quite an achievement. Also, the two Byrde children, Charlotte and Jonah, are bright spots. Though the writing is by no means fluid or consistent for them, both Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner do a very nice job with what they’re given.
Finally, there’s Marc Menchaca, who plays Ruth’s relative, Russ Langmore. His story arc goes through more phases than anyone else’s on the show, and while there will be plenty of people turned off by portions of it, Marc is superb in playing a man struggling with his station in life…and even his sexuality. Again, Ozark leaves no pulpy, potentially controversial stone unturned in its failed quest to stun an audience.
Ozark appears more concerned with finding any way to make you uneasy than it does telling a compelling story for ten hours. I think there’s a good show here somewhere, but that’s not what creators Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams gave us. They missed the mark, because they shot almost exclusively for the sizzle target, and very rarely the steak.
It isn’t ten wasted hours, but it’s at least five, all totaled. It does get better, with a few of the middle episodes being a few steps above what comes earlier. There are things you’ll like, stories you’ll enjoy, and moments you’ll remember, but one thing is for certain:
This is not Breaking Bad. Not even close. It’s also not in the same universe with Justified, and really, it’s not even Season 1 of Bloodline, as that show did land the plane after meandering for much of the first eight episodes.
It’s just Ozark, a basic crime story that tries to spice itself up with a bunch of dirty words, blood, sex, and murder. It looks better than it is. The cast is better than the script. The talent exceeds the execution.
Ozark isn’t horrible. It’s just okay. It’s merely average on a good day.
And, in this era of Peak TV, and especially when you’re on Netflix, that’s pretty faint praise. I can’t recommend Ozark, because there’s simply too much else out there that’s more worth your time. If you do head into the woods and attempt the journey, I hope you enjoy the trip more than I did. The acting is good, the setting is beautiful and appropriate, but the substance is too often marred by an artificiality that wrecks most of the enjoyment and leaves behind an empty, decaying husk in the forest.
My advice? Pass.
I’m @JMartOutkick. I’m headed to Party Cove. Ladies?
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