“Narcos,” Netflix's new drama about the rise of the Colombian drug cartels, opens with a title card explaining, “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.
It then adds, “There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”
This observation – which the “Narcos” creators like enough to have a character repeat in a later episode – suggests a magical realism take on the story of Pablo Escobar and the rest of the Medellin Cartel. Instead, it's a pretty straightforward, if lengthy (the first season has 10 episodes; I've seen the first 7), take on the sordid, tragic business of Pablo and his comrades. It moves at a fast clip and is eminently watchable, even as it feels like a pretty superficial take on the subject.
Created by Chris Brancato, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard, with the first episode directed on location in Colombia by José Padilha, “Narcos” is unapologetic in using “Goodfellas” as its stylistic touchstone. And why not? If you're gonna steal, particularly for a gangster epic that sprawls across several decades, you may as well steal from the best.
So we pick up fairly late in the story, as DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) is getting a tip about one of Escobar's men, then jump all the way back to 1973 so Murphy can explain how a mass execution in Chile was the first step in Escobar's long and complicated route to becoming one of the wealthiest, and deadliest, criminals of all time. It's a story with so many improbable twists and turns that the first episode is virtually wall-to-wall narration by Murphy just to sort through it all before he and his wife Connie (Joanna Christie) move down to Colombia for a first-hand look at what the cartels are doing. And even after he's part of the action, Murphy remains our voiceover guide as he tells the story out of chronological order – “I don't want to get ahead of myself,” he apologizes at one point when he's referred to something that won't be explained for a while – to better convey the cause-and-effect of it all.
The heavy use of narration, and the show's willingness to mix in footage and photographs of the subjects – so that, say, we see Wagner Moura as Escobar posing for a mugshot that would get him into trouble years later, followed by a glimpse of the actual picture – creates an almost documentary feel to “Narcos” at times, even though every episode opens with a disclaimer about how certain events and names have been altered for the sake of dramatizing the story. Most of the time, the things Escobar and his compatriots did seem too shocking, and too brazenly public, to seem real, even though almost all of them were.
Moura, a Brazilian actor who packed on a lot of weight to play the chunky kingpin, is suitably charismatic and menacing, even if the series' attempts to psychoanalyze Escobar – to make him seem more complex, than, say, Luis Guzman as Escobar's hot-headed cartel partner Gacha – have mixed results. And “Game of Thrones” alum Pedro Pascal is compelling as Murphy's partner Javier Peña. But while Boyd Holbrook sounds lively and wry delivering the narration that holds the story together – and that, given how many of the characters speak Spanish with each other, provides the show with occasional sequences that require no subtitles – he doesn't have a lot to work with when Murphy is part of the action, and doesn't bring much to what little's on the page. It's a flat character, played flatly.
And though the propulsive and colorful nature of the story in many ways lends itself well to the Netflix binge release, the facts of the story lend a certain sameness to some of the middle chapters: a Colombian official stands up to Escobar, briefly seems to have accomplished something, then is killed in garish fashion. Those individual stories provide structure for each episode, but also might play better with the viewing experience spaced out.
On the other hand, the Escobar legend is so inherently dramatic that it doesn't need much window dressing to work as an ongoing drama. There's a richer, more artistically ambitious version – possibly, but not necessarily, involving magic realism – of this story still waiting to be told, but the basic competence of “Narcos” is enough for now.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org