“Ozark” gets drunk on an ice-chest full of red­neck clichés

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Hank Stuever

It doesn’t get any grim­mer than Net­flix’s “Ozark” (which pre­miered Fri­day), one of those sus­pense dra­mas that you want to stop watch­ing, but can’t. Read that as an en­dorse­ment if you like (“Can’t stop watch­ing!!!” — The Wash­ing­ton Post), but note the side ef­fects that come with it, mainly stress fa­tigue. It’s as if the cre­ators raided tele­vi­sion’s medicine cab­i­net and made off with all the am­phet­a­mines meant for a year’s worth of other crime shows.

Ja­son Bate­man, known lately as the even-man­nered fam­ily man in come­dies that tend to star “Satur­day Night Live” alum and their pals, branches out here as Marty Byrde, an even-man­nered fam­ily man and fi­nan­cial plan­ner in Chicago — a no-non­sense num­bers guy who is in way over his head with a vi­o­lent Mex­i­can drug car­tel, whose money has been qui­etly laun­dered for some years by Marty’s firm.

What’s un­set­tling, at first, is how ac­cus­tomed the viewer is to see­ing Bate­man charm his way out of sit­u­a­tions that are merely awk­ward and quirky. No one is laugh­ing here, and, mere min­utes into the pi­lot episode, some char­ac­ters you were ex­pect­ing to stick around for a while have taken bul­lets point-blank to their heads. The car­tel is miss­ing $8 mil­lion and has sent a high-rank­ing taskmas­ter, Camino Del Rio (Esai Mo­rales), to Chicago to kill Marty and his as­so­ciates.

Plead­ing for his life, Marty pro­poses a new idea: He’ll move to the Lake of the Ozarks, a vast and idyl­lic reser­voir in the hills west of St. Louis, where a sea­sonal in­flux of tourist cash will make it easy to laun­der big­ger piles of the car­tel’s sur­plus money. Del Rio con­di­tion­ally agrees, but first gives Marty a nearly im­pos­si­ble dead­line to pro­duce the miss­ing mil­lions, which Marty doesn’t have.

In a panic — and al­ready pre­oc­cu­pied with the dis­cov­ery that his wife, Wendy (Laura Lin­ney), has been hav­ing an af­fair — Marty races home and tells his fam­ily that they’re mov­ing to Mis­souri. Wendy is re­sis­tant and their two teenagers pitch a fit (yes, it’s more of peak TV’S fiercely dis­obe­di­ent ado­les­cents), but the fear in Marty’s eyes is too real to be ig­nored.

Only af­ter Wendy tries to empty some bank ac­counts on her own and nearly loses her life when the car­tel finds out, does she un­der­stand how des­per­ate things are. As Marty and Wendy hus­tle to liq­ui­date ev­ery last cent of their as­sets, “Ozark” is off to a re­mark­ably breath­less be­gin­ning — and both Bate­man and Lin­ney con­vey mul­ti­ple lev­els of fear, alarm, and a mu­tual and sim­mer­ing dis­gust. What­ever Bate­man has to learn about se­ri­ous act­ing, Lin­ney is there to teach him.

The Byrdes ar­rive like alien vis­i­tors to the Lake of the Ozarks, a col­lec­tion of towns, re­sorts and recre­ational ar­eas jok­ingly known by lo­cals and tourists as a “Red­neck Riviera.” Marty doesn’t have time to waste, look­ing for any strug­gling, cash-heavy busi­ness to sink money into — strip clubs, restau­rants and even a fledg­ling “boat church” where a pas­tor draws float­ing con­gre­gants to a scenic cove to re­ceive the word.

“Ozark” teems with the sort of au­then­tic de­tails you’d only get through re­search, but even with its at­ten­tion to at­mo­spher­ics, the show is clumsy with its sense of place. The lake, cre­ated in 1931 with the con­struc­tion of a dam on the Osage River, in­cludes more than 1,000 miles of pri­vately owned shore­line, of­fer­ing a get­away for both the rich and the not-sorich. “Ozark’s” co-cre­ator, Bill Dubuque, is from St. Louis and kept a cabin on the lake for many years; based on the tone of the show, he and his col­leagues in­ten­tion­ally see the lake and its com­mu­ni­ties through a much darker lens than the av­er­age va­ca­tioner.

The peo­ple who live around the lake are seen as back­ward, racist, ho­mo­pho­bic and in­tel­li­gent only in the crim­i­nal sense — all of which could very well be truthy, but not en­tirely fair. I hope the lo­cal tourism of­fice wasn’t bank­ing on “Ozark” to be a boon for busi­ness. Af­ter watch­ing the show, it seems like the last place you’d want to visit.

Jack­son Davis, Net­flix

Laura Lin­ney and Ja­son Bate­man in “Ozark.”

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