Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - JIMI FAMUREWA VERDICT In­tense, thrilling and laced with dark sur­prises, this twisted crime thriller moulds some­thing new from recog­nis­able themes. An ir­re­sistible slice of red­neck noir bol­stered by Ja­son Bate­man’s tow­er­ing cen­tral per­for­mance.

CRE­ATOR Bill Dubuque CAST Ja­son Bate­man, Laura Lin­ney, Ju­lia Garner, Sofia Hublitz, Michael Mosley, Sky­lar Gaert­ner, Kevin L. John­son

PLOT Marty Byrde (Bate­man) is a Chicago fi­nan­cial man­ager by day, money laun­derer by night. But when a scam draws the wrath of his druglord boss (Mo­rales), he has to take his wife (Lin­ney) and kids Sophia (Hublitz) and Jonah (Gaert­ner) to the ru­ral Lake Of The Ozarks to re­pay a huge debt and build a new life.

IT’S A FAIRLY high-pres­sure time to be launch­ing a splashy Net­flix show. Hav­ing pre­vi­ously ap­peared to be in the blank-cheque busi­ness, bosses at the dis­rup­tive stream­ing com­pany re­cently eu­thanised a cou­ple of ex­pen­sive block­busters (the Wa­chowskis Sense 8 and Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down) as well as a half-hour com­edy that took some­thing of a crit­i­cal kick­ing (Girl­boss). Even Blood­line — a warmly re­ceived, Emmy-win­ning se­ries about a dys­func­tional fam­ily in crime-rid­den Florida — was not re­newed for a fourth sea­son.

And so, upon en­coun­ter­ing brand-new crime drama Ozark (which, with its drug gangs and pic­turesque wa­ter­side lo­ca­tions, is not a mil­lion miles away from Blood­line) it would be un­der­stand­able to worry, per­haps, about whether it will crum­ple un­der all that in­tense scru­tiny or fail to reach the “huge au­di­ence” that Net­flix chief Ted Saran­dos has now cited as a de­cid­ing fac­tor when it comes to can­cel­la­tions. Well, fret not. From its pul­sat­ing, nails-in-the­sofa premiere on­ward this is a com­plex, hugely com­pelling and en­thrallingly dark thriller that de­serves to be a huge hit.

As de­scrip­tions go, ‘Michael Bluth breaks bad’ isn’t a bad one. Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment’s Ja­son Bate­man (who stars, pro­duces and even di­rects four of the ten episodes) is Marty Byrde, a sub­ur­ban Chicago dad who works as a fi­nan­cial ad­vi­sor, drives a Toy­ota Camry and glumly watches hidden-cam­era footage of his wife Wendy (Laura Lin­ney) hav­ing an af­fair. But, of course, Marty also has a se­cret. He and his part­ner have been laun­der­ing money for a Mex­i­can drug car­tel for the past decade. But when their ruth­less boss (Esai Mo­rales) dis­cov­ers an $8 mil­lion em­bez­zling scheme — and starts vi­o­lently clean­ing house — the only way Marty can save his life is by ner­vously pulling a plan out of his back­side: not

only will he pay back the stolen money, he’ll head to a lake­side hol­i­day spot in the Ozarks to ‘clean’ it and set up a new operation for the car­tel.

It’s an ar­rest­ing and breath­less way to kick­start a show, cram­ming al­most a whole sea­son’s worth of in­ci­dent into a sin­gle hour that, in a sense, func­tions as a pro­logue for the en­su­ing ac­tion in the Ozarks. But it works, and hooks you into the drama as Marty packs up the fam­ily (namely, Sofia Hublitz’s snarky 15-year-old Char­lotte and Sky­lar Gaert­ner’s an­i­mal-ob­sessed 13-year-old Jonah) and sets about ex­e­cut­ing his get-out scheme. Need­less to say, thanks to hos­tile lo­cals, Peter Mul­lan’s hill­billy crime lord and an in­tense FBI agent (Ja­son But­ler Harner) who senses Marty’s guilt, the Byrdes’ bid to save them­selves soon be­comes any­thing but sim­ple. Un­doubt­edly, Ozark cre­ator Bill Dubuque (The Judge) nods to some fa­mil­iar touch­stones

— Break­ing Bad, of course, but also Scors­ese, dur­ing a scene in which Marty gives a voiceover les­son in money-laun­der­ing as The Rolling Stones play — but one of the show’s big­gest virtues is the dis­tinc­tive­ness of its washed-grey look and the fresh­ness of its heart­land Amer­ica lo­ca­tion. As the Byrdes ad­just to their pre­car­i­ous new lives and the bod­ies in­evitably pile up, we dive fur­ther into a grim, sur­real world of pet bob­cats, corpses stuffed into acid bar­rels, wa­ter­borne church ser­vices and heav­ily preg­nant pole dancers.

Bate­man, per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly given his comic chops, helps leaven some of these darker mo­ments with mas­ter­fully de­liv­ered lines (“If I want to put all £700,945,400 in a hot tub, get buck naked and play Scrooge Mc­duck, that is 100 per cent my busi­ness,” he snaps, clean­ing out a bank ac­count). But, while his wry ex­as­per­a­tion is ex­pected, his abil­ity to force­fully sell emo­tion as a lead­ing man is a joy to be­hold. Marty Byrde may be a dif­fi­cult char­ac­ter to warm to (where Wal­ter White’s su­per­power was sci­en­tific ge­nius, Byrde’s is a knack for fi­nan­cial voodoo and hastily con­ceived bull­shit) but Bate­man mostly suc­ceeds in mak­ing you root for him. If you were to nit­pick, you could ar­gue that

Ozark oc­ca­sion­ally over­plays its hand when it comes to grim­ness (dis­patch­ing one par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble char­ac­ter late on may be too much for some). Its acrid at­mos­phere — where heads are fre­quently blown off and fam­ily mem­bers are con­stantly threat­ened — is sti­fling. Mostly, though, it deftly walks the line be­tween bleak deeds and black laughs, be­fore tee­ing up a tan­ta­lis­ing sec­ond se­ries. Here’s hop­ing we get to see it.

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