Netflix’s crime thriller ‘Ozark’ goes to town on dirty money

The positive buzz for Netflix series Ozark piqued my interest. I’m in the middle of catching up on The Sopranos so I wasn’t necessarily looking for another crime and family centric drama. But after checking out the pilot to see if it would be something I’d like I became addicted. The pilot is very good, one of the best pilots I’ve seen in a while. I ended up finishing the rest of the 10 episode season in less than a week.

Ozark hits the mark on what you’d expect from a crime thriller. One lie can cost you everything. And one lie can lead to another and then another. Jason Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago-based financial adviser who must save his and his family’s lives by moving to Lake Ozark and launder $500 million dollars in 5 years. Where some crime stories are about a heist or stealing money, Byrde must spend cold hard cash by the barrel full.

Despite Marty Byrde being another middle-aged, morally grey protagonist, he is a compelling lead character. Byrde is a fast thinking, schemer who uses his brain rather than brawn to solve dilemmas. As a viewer, it’s entertaining how Byrde’s schemes can unknowingly land him into deeper, dangerous waters. Jason Bateman imparts a likability to Byrde. His delivery makes exposition about money laundering sound more intriguing than it should be. Bateman is also good at never overacting in intense scenes. In addition to the lead role, Bateman directs several episodes, including the well-shot pilot and superb season finale.

It’s a cliché to say that the location is like a character in itself. However, the Lake Ozark setting gives the show a unique backdrop and vibe. The premise wouldn’t work in a bustling, urban city. As it turns out, it’s quite challenging and entertaining to launder a lot of money in a small, summer resort town. Further, we can clearly begin to see Byrde’s impact on the town as he pumps hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.

As the season unfolds, it’s becomes evident that there is more going on beneath the story. Ozark poses interesting ideas about how the American economy benefits from the influx of drug cartel money. It’s also fascinating how Ozark plays with lies and truth. The premise is the result of a tangled web of lies that Byrde spins. But as much as his family and the town folk get caught in his web, at the end of the day everyone is accountable for their decisions. The writing is deliberate in how characters make informed decisions based on the truth. Whether their decision is justified or unethical it is up to them to decide. In Ozark, bad things that happen aren’t by chance, characters have free will. As the saying goes, you make the bed you lie in.

While most of the local town characters are interesting, some of the Byrde family members can be annoying at times. At least there is a different dynamic between Marty and his wife Wendy Byrde that isn’t a simple retread of Tony & Carmela Soprano or Breaking Bad’s Walter & Skyler White. Though she doesn’t play the most endearing character, Laura Linney is quite good as Wendy. Apparently a crime drama isn’t complete without a FBI agent on the heels of the protagonist. The unstable Agent Roy Petty is a wild card that the show can use to advance plot points, but I don’t know what to make of him as a character.

Netflix has confidence in this series. Ozark was renewed for a second season only a month after the first season dropped. It’s deserving of the many good reviews. The solid pace and engrossing story justifies the 10 episodes, where each episode picks up where the last one leaves off. On top of the dramatic narrative, Ozark’s underpinnings are well thought out. I don’t think Season 1 is a flash in the pan. The ingredients are there for more successful seasons to be made. There is also room for improvement. I’ve been cutting down on the number of TV shows that I’m following, but I’m gladly adding Ozark to the watch list.

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