Ozark–A Stark, Dark Thriller

Ozark Netflix original series

This Netflix Original series (released July 21 of this year) was created by screenwriter Bill Dubuque (known for The Accountant, see my review). Ozark is so good it approaches the standard set by “Breaking Bad”.

The series showcases Chicago financial planner Marty Byrde (a sensational Jason Bateman from “Arrested Development”) and his wife Wendy (the impeccable Laura Linney of “Masterpiece Theater”)  a homemaker turned real estate agent. The couple relocate with their son and daughter to the Lake of the Ozarks, a summer resort community in Missouri.  Marty must find a way to  continue to launder  money for a Mexican drug cartel.

What ensues in ten episodes is a taut thriller with plot twists which are neither slow nor predictable. Ozark is populated with some seriously heinous flawed characters: think Walter White. But then again “flawed characters” are just more interesting, as long as we can understand their motivations. There is no message of hope–at least not so far. and the only reality we witness is of extremely wounded personalities.

The scenes from the Byrde marriage recall the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney have a conjugal dance that leaves the viewer cringing at each blow and confrontation.

Although the acting and dialog are brillant, Ozark may fall outside of some viewers comfort zones. While you would not want to be friends with ANY of the main characters, a few scenes may be “over the top” for some.

One criticism I do have of “Ozark” is that the minor characters who live in the Lake of the Ozarks are playing to type–or maybe stereotype–of rednecks–uneducated and desperate– who can’t think of any other life choices besides crime. There are a brother-sister pair attempting to escape their circumstances but tremendous fear and family loyalty prevent them from exiting their miserable situation. Mexicans are also stereotyped as either in drug cartels or “cleaning toilets”. Those aspects of Ozark I find offensive, and wish screenwriters would work a little harder at making their point rather than perpetrating stereotypes. The narrative is otherwise superb.

“Ozark carefully guides the audience through the story, sometimes to excess. (For example, one episode unnecessarily is devoted almost entirely to backstory.)  However, Ozark is far from predictable. Bateman’s disarming and deceptively complex performance contributes greatly to his character’s evolution. He’s not sympathetic, and he’s not good, but he’s not as bad as he could be. He is desperate to protect his family as well as to survive. He is smart, employing any ruthless means at his disposal.

Please hurry with the release of the next season!

Note: [Not a spoiler alert) The finale is an editing anomaly in comparison to the preceding episodes. I thought it was a bit sloppy and melodramatic, detracting from the overall craft of screenwriting throughout this notable series.

 

“Fargo”: Season 2—Still Far to Go

 

fargo-season-2-ted-danson-patrick-wilson

Season 2 of the award-winning Fargo mini-series is a stunning repeat performance not only of the Coen brothers’ iconic movie by the same name but also in its succession to Season 1. The season finale of Fargo was broadcast this week.

Comedy meets tragedy. Humor meets violence. Surreal meets the real with an infusion of the main theme: the loss of innocence. Hell descends, though the characters are ill-prepared, and now there is no turning back. Their unexpected dark side grows like a cancer. [And the ferocious transformation of characters is not unlike Walter White in “Breaking Bad”.]

Welcome to the world of Fargo, where wisecracks about food sit comfortably next to corpses in bloody scene after bloody scene. Season 2 is planted firmly in 1979, when the tensions of the Vietnam War have left their scars, when women’s changing roles and race relations are in the average American’s consciousness. Even in North Dakota and Minnesota, there is no escape. Social change will be traumatic for some, even in this isolated enclave where Lutheran pragmatism dictates avoiding self-expression and standing out from one’s family and community.

The ensemble cast is remarkable: Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons (from “Breaking Bad”) and most of all Jean Smart and Kirsten Dunst. Jean Smart’s performance as Floyd Gerhart, matriarch of a small-town family syndicate, is a standout. Kirsten Dunst, in her first major television role, as Peggy, is stunning as the quiet beautician wanting to make her dream– “I just wanted to be someone”– come true. Echoes of perhaps the most famous quote in “On the Waterfront” (1954) by another dreamer, Terry (Marlon Brando): “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”  Flash-forward twenty-five years and Peggy is yearning for the same thing.

Their 1970’s North Dakota and Minnesota is populated with UFO’s (a sighting in Fargo was reported in 1975), crystals, “self-actualization” EST seminars , sideburns and bell bottoms. Peggy is so self-absorbed in becoming a new person, that in perhaps the most bizarre of the episodes , [Spoiler Alert!!] she is nonplussed when a UFO descends in the midst of a shoot-out. “It’s just a UFO, Ed. We gotta go”. Both startling and silly, the scene nonetheless epitomizes Fargo, North Dakota and its residents at that time.

The wonder of wonders is that this season marks the repeat of a new trend in mini-series: a continuation of the mini-series with a completely new story and cast, a trend started by “True Detective”. With far more sophistication and complex plot devices, the creators of Season 2 (notably Noah Hawley) leave no question in the viewer’s mind that this is indeed Coen territory. Fargo pays homage to Season 1, with the same characters (different actors) in a flash-forward to their older selves.

Although this season can stand on its own (for those who haven’t seen Season 1), tying in the principal characters from the first season into Season 2 is masterfully crafted. Moreover, I’m hoping some of the new characters added to the story will undoubtedly also be reborn in Season 3, whether as a flash-forward or as backstory. There is still far to go in this anthology in the Coen spirit. Season 3 of Fargo is now underway. The surprise and intrigue continue!