Imagine Arrested Development and Breaking Bad having a chance meeting in a bar. It’s getting late and the two shows are bored, lonely and drunk. They maintain eye contact for a little longer than necessary and, though they know they’re not right for one another, one thing leads to another. The next morning they’re awkwardly stumbling out of a hotel room muttering goodbyes and desperately hoping the other used birth control. Nine months later, Ozark appears.
The show is the creation of Bill Dubuque, previously responsible for terrible Robert Downey Jr. comedy The Judge and Ben Affleck’s iffy The Accountant. But, if Ozark is anything to go by, his star is on the rise (this should give Nightwing fans something to feel positive about, as Dubuque is attached to write the screenplay for the upcoming spinoff).
Primarily set around Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, the show chronicles the spiralling misery of Martin, Wendy, Charlotte and Jonah Byrde. We meet the family in bog standard suburbia, their dull but stable lives made possible by Martin’s skill at moving money around. Then everything goes to shit. It turns out that Martin’s biggest client runs the second biggest Mexican drug cartel and someone is skimming money off the top. The cartel is not happy (putting it mildly). Soon, Martin witnesses a brutal execution spree and the ominous arrival of several barrels of sulphuric acid.
At gunpoint, Martin pleads for his life. In desperation, he remembers a conversation he’d had earlier that day about the investment potential of the Ozarks “it’s got more shoreline than California!” And so the Byrde family is uprooted to the boonies, where Martin is tasked with living up to his sales pitch and laundering millions of dollars of dirty cartel money. If he fails, he and his family face the old acid barrel routine.
The setup makes for desperate and dark drama. Jason Bateman’s Martin is an ethical man whose decency slowly erodes as the months pass. Dealing with constant stress and insomnia, he throws himself into his work, claiming to be an ‘angel investor’ and buying up local businesses and funnelling drug money through them. As if the cartel weren’t threat enough, he soon has to contend with an opportunistic family of thugs, the local heroin suppliers and the FBI.
Ozark sets out its stall in the first couple of minutes: “Scratch. Wampum. Dough. Sugar. Clams. Loot. Bills. Bones. Bread. Bucks. Money. That which separates the haves from the have nots.” Money fuels every single interaction in the show: Martin is trying to clean it, the local economy is being force-fed it, the cartels are trying to protect it, and the criminals covet it. The show doesn’t treat money as the root of all evil, more like a force of nature against which individuals are powerless.
Martin doesn’t just understand finance, he instinctively knows how money makes people behave, qualities which make him a very useful man to the cartel. These skills allow him to manipulate people – in one early example effortlessly convincing hardened criminals that their theft (from him) of a couple of million in cash is going to cause them more trouble than it’s worth.
Cartel violence and the futile ‘war on drugs’ makes for the perfect backdrop for Ozark‘s thesis: a critique of free market economics. Dubuque assembles a convincing case that the pursuit of endless growth, the hunt for new markets and the physical weight of money corrupts even the holiest and most virtuous. As the credits roll on the final episode, Ozark‘s most impressive feat is the way it shows money as a burden rather than as a liberator. A show is doing something right when the arrival of a truckload of hard cash for the protagonist inspires outright terror.
Ozark gets a lot of mileage from a sick fascination at watching the pressure slowly build on the neo-Death of a Salesman protagonist. That Jason Bateman is the wheedling, frustrated and lying face of all this financial wheeling and dealing makes Martin Byrde deeply reminiscent of Arrested Development‘s Michael Bluth, but it’s as if Michael has accidentally wandered out of comedic farce and into super-desaturated, blood-soaked neo-noir. You can almost imagine Ron Howard’s deadpan narration: “On the next… Ozark, Michael solves the mystery of the jar of human eyeballs…”
Bateman’s commitment to the role (he also directs a handful of episodes and exec produces) pays off gangbusters: his performance allowing us to both imagine ourselves in his unhappy shoes and surprise us with how far he’s prepared to go for his family (Arrested Development fans will know that this is the most important thing, after breakfast). He’s ably supported by a generally great supporting cast, with Laura Linney’s long-suffering Wendy and a breakout role from Julia Garner as whip-smart crime teen Ruth, obvious highlights.
Sadly, there is a fly in the ointment: a midseason loss of momentum. Ozark starts and ends with a bang, but has a lot of time to fill in between and is eventually burdened with subplots that had me eyeing the fast forward button. A prime example is the backstory of FBI Agent Roy Petty. He’s ‘yer basic fucked up cop archetype and gets lengthy flashback sequences outlining his backstory that feel like narrative wheelspinning. The show also has a tendency to spend way too much time on ponderous, repetitive conversations that underline what we already know about the characters rather than develop them.
Despite feeling suspiciously like six episodes stretched out to ten, this still occupies an upper tier of crime television. It’s not as good as all-time classics like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, but it shares the same enquiring nature: intelligently examining the psychology, sociology and economics that fuel crime. If you’re a fan of any one of those stone cold TV classics you’ll find much to enjoy in Ozark.
The bizarro neo-noir lovechild of Arrested Development and Breaking Bad, Jason Bateman's Ozark is a gripping crime drama.