“Ozark” gets drunk on an ice-chest full of redneck clichés
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.
Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in “Ozark.”