In Netflix’s new drama Ozark, Jason Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a money launderer who has to abruptly move his family from Chicago to Lake of the Ozarks to convince his angry drug cartel bosses he can work financial magic in what he thinks is virgin territory. Instead, he’s stunned to discover that the locals have not only seen his kind before, but that there’s so much crime down there, he might have been better off not going at all.
Marty’s dilemma is unfortunately Ozark‘s, as well. What might have felt like a novel idea 10 or 15 years ago — middle-aged white anti-hero does something terrible to help his family, and only gets pulled in deeper and deeper — is now so tired that it would require sheer brilliance to come out feeling as fresh and untainted as all the money that Marty cleans.
And Ozark isn’t up to that challenge.
The series (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen the first six episodes) is dark in every way — the graphic violence threatened (and occasionally committed) by cartel enforcer Del (Esai Morales), the muted color palette that makes everything look blue, the utter lack of humor — and methodical in the way it follows the Breaking Bad playbook. It’s really not until the third episode that it even becomes the show that it’s about, devoting the first hour to Marty’s Chicago life falling apart until he has to propose this move to the Ozarks, and the second to Marty and wife Wendy (the wildly overqualified Laura Linney) looking for a place to live down there and meeting their new neighbors. And once they do settle in and Marty gets to money launderin’, the show is pretty much this:
Shortly after that tweet, I heard from several publicists, each convinced I was cracking wise about one of their upcoming dramas — each one a different series, none of them Ozark, which speaks to how saturated the market is with this particular storytelling model. Your show needs something special to be worth the bother — particularly when too many shows are demanding too much patience from their viewers, with not enough reward — and Ozark doesn’t really deliver the goods.
Ozark was created by The Accountant writer Bill Dubuque, and run by Chris Mundy, previously the man in charge of AMC’s Low Winter Sun, which was similarly so grim and formulaic that The Good Wife had a running parody of it called Darkness at Noon. It’s hard to tell if the show’s aversion to humor comes from Mundy or from Bateman, who directed many of the episodes and may look at Ozark as a way to prove he’s not just Michael Bluth (or the many variations on Michael he’s played in recent movie comedies). But the series it’s most explicitly copying understood the value of light moments even in the darkest of possible stories, where this makes the Low Winter Sun mistake of assuming you have to be utterly serious in order to be taken seriously. No one throws any pizza onto roofs here, nor is there a chant of, “Yeah, Mr. Byrde! Yeah, MONEY LAUNDERING!”
The first two hours are a chore — they feel like the first 15 minutes of a movie script that got stretched out without adding anything worth the extra time — after which things perk up a bit, owing less to anything about Marty and Wendy or kids Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) than to our getting to know some of their new friends and enemies. In particular, Julia Garner (Kimmy from The Americans) is so good as Ruth Langhorne, 19-year-old leader of a local family of hillbilly con artists — smarter and more vicious than all the men in the family, but also more vulnerable in ways she can barely recognize, let alone understand — that I began to wish for Ozark to take a Psycho left turn and kill off the famous star early in order to focus on who the story should really be about. The occasional moments where Marty and Ruth are actually working together, rather than trying to sabotage one another, are reminiscent of Walt and Jesse (or Tony and Christopher, or Don and Peggy, or…), but it’s also the closest Ozark often comes to feeling genuinely entertaining, rather than a monochromatic forced march.
Peter Mullan from Top of the Lake and Quarry pops up a few episodes in as a crime boss for whom Marty’s arrival is a constant source of headaches, and he at least retains his gift for delivering colorful speeches menacingly. Jordana Spiro has less to do as the owner of a lakefront lodge Marty buys to launder his money, but she has an earthy frankness that gives more life to the character than her plot functionary status demands; when she’s on screen, you believe she had a full and complicated existence before Marty’s trouble walked through her door.
Bateman and Linney both do their best in thankless roles. Marty’s perpetually smug and exasperated, but rarely gets to display a level of genius or creativity to make that tolerable; you know he’s smart mainly because he keeps telling everyone that he is. Wendy has her own sins to do penance for, and Linney occasionally manages to generate some specificity out of a stock disapproving cable wife role, but the cliches keep getting the better of her.
There’s also the matter of Marty having to clean money that’s already been laundered in order to save his life. The whole thing is a test by Del — “I’m torn, Marty,” he says, “between intrigue and thinking this whole Ozark thing is complete and utter straw-grasping bullshit” — and while the lives of Marty and his family are at stake, the capriciousness of the exercise undercuts the life-and-death stakes of it all: Marty has to risk everything as a thought exercise, basically.
There are occasional hints of a show that’s striving for more than Peak TV’s Greatest Hits played by a proficient cover band. But inevitably, things revert to exactly what you expect them to be, recalling the song that one of Marty’s new employees at the lodge keeps playing over and over again on the jukebox: “Still the Same.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com