The Narcos franchise launched its fifth season (more specifically, the second season of Narcos: Mexico) a few weeks ago, and Amazon’s now getting in on the drug-crime drama game with a new limited series called ZeroZeroZero. Of course, this wasn’t a trivial or last-minute decision. Amazon’s series is inspired by Roberto Saviano’s 2015 book of the same name and was shot on location worldwide for over a year. It’s been a long ride to the small screen, no doubt. Yet it’s hard to imagine that Amazon would leap in with such an expansive show (albeit one that’s wrapped up in a one-season run) if not for the success of Netflix’s efforts on the cocaine-drama beat.
If you’re reading this piece, there’s a decent chance that you recently finished watching Scoot McNairy and Diego Luna’s quiet confrontation in Netflix’s latest Narcos: Mexico season finale. Let’s dig into whether ZeroZeroZero qualifies to scratch any lingering itches. Obviously, both shows run with similar subject matter (the cocaine trade and all of its inherent drama and bloodshed), but let’s talk about how the Amazon series measures up, so that when the season drops on March 6, you’ll know if you wanna be ready.
Location, location, location: Narcos kept its roots mainly in Colombia while tracking Pablo Escobar and, later, the Cali Cartel, landing in the mid-1990s. Subsequently, Narcos: Mexico performed a reverse time-jump into North America to track the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel in the mid-1980s as established by Félix Gallardo. Currently, Félix’s empire lies in shambles, and his various plazas are all preparing to rise as separate (and warring) cartels. Occasionally, the series pops across the border, but for the most part, Narcos keeps its action geographically confined and intensely focused.
In contrast, ZeroZeroZero literally runs far and wide, from the U.S. (mainly New Orleans) to Mexico, Italy, Senegal, and Morocco on the heels of a solitary (but globe-spanning and massive) cocaine shipment. Sweeping Atlantic ocean views, daring treks up the Calabrian hills, and street-level action in Monterrey all await the viewer for a truly worldwide production. “Eye candy” might be the wrong choice of terms to use here, but to be perfectly blunt, there’s never an absence of lush views for people to witness while terrible things go down. The wide-ranging setting not only follows the story but perfectly illustrates Saviano’s thesis, which is that cocaine literally makes the world’s economy go ’round. By following one absurdly huge shipment of this powder, the viewer can grapple with the enormous slice of humanity that’s affected by the trade.
Picking a side ain’t easy: Narcos has been widely compared to The Wire, especially over the past two seasons, because it explores both sides of the law enforcement coin. The complexity of the resulting conflicts gets broken down through love-or-hate (mostly love) narration that helps viewers catch up on the history, so that they can focus on the action and characters while institution-based betrayal threatens to topple everything. Good vs. evil is a little hazy but still relatively clear cut on Narcos, as long as everyone keeps in mind that no one wins the War on Drugs. Given the personalities on display, though, it’s been easy enough to be drawn to the dogged personalities of Walt Breslin, Stephen Murphy, and Kiki Camerena while also admiring the charismatic allure of drug lords like Escobar and Gallardo.
Whereas ZeroZeroZero throws the viewer into a three-pronged conflict — not only the perspective of the cartels producing the powder but also the crime syndicates who will take on distribution, and the wealthy U.S.-based company that brokers the deal — where there’s no side that’s really worth rooting for. On an individual level, we can worry about the danger that follows the Lynwood family (Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough, and Dane DeHaan) and hope for their survival, even if they’re arguably in denial about their privilege and the effects of how they help facilitate a violent trade. They do believe that they’re helping maintain the global economy, which is a loaded argument that’s not entirely wrong. That part’s open for interpretation, of course. As the Lynwoods cross the Atlantic, down in Mexico, a soldier named Manuel (Harold Torres) shows genuine compassion toward civilians while pursuing Leyra drug cartel leaders. Yet overall, this is not a show that makes heroes of its characters.
How does the historical accuracy compare? Narcos does trek through the history books, although it’s important to remember that history is largely written by the winners of wars, and obviously, no one has yet (or probably ever will) settle the War on Drugs. Further, some of what has gone down has been buried in governmental files, so we don’t know if we’re getting a truly accurate portrait of what went down in Operation Leyenda or any of the other U.S. missions depicted onscreen. And composite characters like Walt Breslin are only one example of where added dramatization sparks emotions, like compassion and admiration, for various characters. Overall, Narcos also remembers that it wants to entertain, hence the flashy glamorization we also see sprinkled throughout the franchise. So, I don’t really think that anyone is too offended by the factual discrepancies that do occur. Narcos doesn’t make educating viewers its primary objective, but knowledge can be a byproduct.
ZeroZeroZero, meanwhile, is based upon intricate, not to mention risky, investigative work from author Roberto Saviano, whose writings are assumed to be based upon fact. He’s even argued for the legalization of cocaine worldwide, but series director and writer Stefano Sollima left that argument off the table for fear of appearing too political. Instead, the Amazon series takes a more detached view of the horrors depicted onscreen, some of which occur when the Lynwood siblings face off against leaders of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta and a Mexican cartel. In particular, Emma Lynwood makes tough choices to keep the family business afloat and also survive, and she provides a rarely seen perspective of how a female badass might navigate a male-dominated underworld.
Should you watch ZeroZeroZero? If you love drug-crime dramas, you certainly won’t be bored by the Amazon series, but don’t go in expecting any meme-able characters or even anyone that you’ll like at all. There are captivating power struggles to watch, particularly when it comes to an aging Italian godfather whose grandson just isn’t cut out for the challenge of keeping the criminal organization running without unwanted collateral damage. The Lynwood siblings, too, both contribute to the gripping nature of a story that’s steeped in ongoing, true events that are causing rampant loss of life. Cocaine touches millions of people on a daily basis, whether those parties want to be involved or not. In the case of the Lynwoods, they’re all in, but their involvement comes with a price, as expected. It’s a little predictable but executed well. Overall, Amazon’s presenting a valuable series that supplements cocaine-drama cravings for audiences who love Narcos, and they’ll get a different and global spin on the drama.
Amazon’s ‘ZeroZeroZero’ series will stream on March 6, and Narcos: Mexico‘s second season is currently streaming on Netflix.