Empire (UK) - - ON. SCREEN -

CRE­ATED BY Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro CAST Michael Peña, Diego Luna, Tenoch Huerta, Alyssa Diaz

PLOT In the early ’80s, as Pablo Es­co­bar’s Colom­bian co­caine op­er­a­tion is in full swing, an ex-cop (Luna) unites Mex­i­can crime fac­tions to form the big­gest mar­i­jua­nas­mug­gling car­tel in his­tory — un­til a DEA agent (Peña) and his team start clos­ing in.

WHEN WE TALK of ex­panded TV uni­verses, sto­ries tan­ta­lis­ingly sprin­kled with Easter eggs and the sat­is­fy­ing sen­sa­tion of sup­pos­edly sep­a­rate nar­ra­tive jigsaw pieces slot­ting to­gether, we tend to think of su­per­hero shows. But what if that same ethos were ap­plied to the world of a fact-based crime drama? That ap­pears to be the lightbulb ping that led to Nar­cos: Mex­ico: a hugely com­pul­sive, sort-of fourth se­ries of Net­flix’s Colom­bian car­tel jug­ger­naut which takes the form of a zoomed-out look at the birth of the sep­a­rate Mex­i­can nar­cotics trade.

That it is also an ex­am­ple of an in­no­va­tive so­lu­tion to one of the prob­lems of Peak TV (namely, a midrun on-ramp suit­able for both Nar­cos ob­ses­sives and those who haven’t yet got around to start­ing the main se­ries) only makes it dou­bly im­pres­sive. There’s even a canny nod to the fu­ture in the form of a young ver­sion of fu­ture crime boss ‘El Chapo’.

Ush­ered in by a typ­i­cally pulpy bit of voiceover (“[This story] doesn’t have a happy end­ing. In fact, it doesn’t have an end­ing at all”), we be­gin in early ’80s Mex­ico, where Félix Gal­lardo (Luna) — a Si­naloan state po­lice­man-turned-drug smug­gler — spies an op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand his fam­ily’s mar­i­juana op­er­a­tion to Guadala­jara. How­ever, just as Félix is show­cas­ing the depths of his vi­o­lent am­bi­tion, a tena­cious Mex­i­can-amer­i­can DEA op­er­a­tive called Kiki (Peña) is ar­riv­ing in the city as well, ready to take on both the lo­cal druglo­rds and law en­force­ment col­leagues ground down by a cor­rupt sys­tem.

This sets up a fairly stan­dard — and very bloody — game of cat-and-mouse be­tween Félix’s fledg­ling con­sor­tium and Kiki’s group of fed­eral agents. Cru­cially, though, it plays out with Nar­cos’ sig­na­ture mix of grim­ily au­then­tic lo­ca­tion shoot­ing (safety was ramped up after a scout for the show was trag­i­cally killed dur­ing pre-pro­duc­tion), hard­boiled ex­plana­tory di­a­logue and the sort of block­buster au­dac­ity that means you’re never more than ten min­utes away from some bru­tal act of vi­o­lent retri­bu­tion.

Yes, it is, at times, a big-bud­get game of gang­ster drama bingo (there are mul­ti­ple eye­brow-wag­gling ref­er­ences to The God­fa­ther and one scene in­volves a VHS screen­ing of Scar­face), char­ac­ter mo­ti­va­tions can be Ri­zla-thin and the women are mostly dec­o­ra­tive non-en­ti­ties. But the per­for­mances (par­tic­u­larly Luna’s icy, driven turn) el­e­vate it. And the in­evitable crossovers with the other ma­jor play­ers in the Nar­cos Ex­tended Uni­verse, when they come, are ut­terly ex­hil­a­rat­ing and dex­trously han­dled. JIMI FAMUREWA

VER­DICT One of the stream­ing age’s most purely en­ter­tain­ing shows gets a fas­ci­nat­ing re­set that bal­ances gang­land thrills, qui­eter con­tem­pla­tive mo­ments and an ir­re­sistible dose of fan ser­vice.

See kids, drugs arenõt fun.

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