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Review: ‘Narcos’ Season 1 Had Promise, But Netflix Could Have Learned From ‘Entourage’

Review: 'Narcos' Season 1 Had Promise, But Netflix Could Have Learned From 'Entourage'

The new series “Narcos,” created by Chris Brancato, Eric Newman and Carlo Bernard, represents a pretty ambitious step for Netflix. Set over several years in the 1970s and ’80s, the crime drama pairs the story of Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), a tough and obsessive DEA agent, with that of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), who played Robin Hood to the poor folk of Colombia while racking up billions of dollars in the cocaine business.

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It’s a pretty classic story of sex, drugs and violence, and one that’s been popularized a hundred times over. In fact, in advertising copy, Netflix has been using the tagline “First they got the coke. Then they got the money. Now the Colombian cartels want the power” — a clear reference to one of the most classic gangster film lines ever uttered, from “Scarface.”

Ergo, “Narcos” knows the audience it’s targeting, and the series shows real ambition in that quest: Director José Padilha brings a verite style to the directing that plays well against the unshowy acting of its performers, and the series is to be commended by how firmly it commits to basically being a bilingual series. If I were to guess, about 50 percent of the entire first season features dialogue spoken in Spanish, as diegetically appropriate. It’s a choice that represents a commitment to authenticity, and one I genuinely respect.

That said, I’m pretty confused about why there’s a need for “Narcos” because our generation already has seen the Pablo Escobar story it needs. We have Billy Walsh’s “Medellin.” And who needs anything more?

For those who forget, “Medellin” was Walsh’s second major collaboration with “Aquaman” star Vincent Chase, following the indie darling “Queens Boulevard.” [Editor’s Note: Billy Walsh and Vincent Chase are fictional characters from the HBO series “Entourage,” and we’re not sure why this writer doesn’t realize that.]

“Medellin” was certainly a troubled production. As documented by behind-the-scenes footage, Walsh failed to get the poontang he craved during production, and the arduous shoot compromised the long-term relationship of one of Chase’s best bros. And the fact that the film was then released straight to DVD by the Weinstein Company after a disasterous Cannes premiere was a harsh blow. But there’s still a part of me that was wishing, while I watched “Narcos,” that it was “Medellin” on my screen.

[Editor’s Note: Ignore the trailer above. As mentioned before, the feature film “Medellin” does not actually exist.]

Because here’s what’s fascinating about comparing “Narcos” to “Medellin”: The problem with any narrative focusing on Pablo Escobar comes down to the basic fact of rooting for a fundamentally terrible human being. (I mean, you can build a hundred soccer fields, but that doesn’t excuse the hundred men who died along the way.) It’s a storytelling problem that “Narcos” seeks to avert by making the show about more than Escobar, almost overcorrecting on that score.

I mean, the protagonist of this gritty crime drama that’s largely en espanol is a blonde white man. At the very least, “Medellin” had the balls to focus entirely on its true subject mattter. Unflinching. Uncompromising. No blemishes were airbrushed away. Instead Vinny Chase put on that fat suit and prosthetic makeup every day, determined to honor the role as best he could.

(Not that Vincent Chase’s acting talents were particularly up to the challenge. But bless him, he tried.)

[Editor’s Note: At this point in the editing process, we reached out to our writer to see what kind of head trauma she might have sustained. Her response: “AQUAMAN SWIMS!”]

And say this about Billy Walsh: He might be a [Editor’s Note: FICTIONAL] lunatic who enjoys doling out drugs and making porn, but he would never agree to the level of voice-over that permeates every scene of “Narcos” that’s not in Spanish. At least one critic has compared the series to listening to someone “read out loud a Wikipedia entry,” and while the voice-over adds wry wisdom to certain scenes, at a certain point you start craving the Spanish-language scenes because those are the scenes that Holbrook doesn’t talk over entirely.

Digging into Pablo Escobar as a fictional character at times feels like a fever dream, like I’ve somehow come to believe that a fake movie created within the world of a TV show about a fake actor was actually real. But here’s what’s real about both “Medellin” and “Narcos”: Both are projects that cost some significant cash and are predicated on the notion that audiences, on some instinctual level, don’t hate a man who fostered corruption and ruined untold numbers of lives.

[Editor’s Note: Technically, this comparison also works with “Entourage,” so we’re going to let it slide.]

And it’s honestly an attitude that leads to creating an entry into one of the least-exciting genres of media available to producers at this point: a celebration of masculinity defying the law. It’s not that you can’t find nuance and enjoyment in that approach, but it’s such well-plowed material that it becomes dull at times.

Though here’s the sad truth: As inferior as “Narcos” is to “Medellin” when it comes to execution {Editor’s Note: Again, “Medellin” is not a real film], Vinny Chase might not be as great a Pablo Escobar as Moura. Quite frankly, Moura is second only to the charming Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones”), when it comes to crafting a character you’d actually want to spend time with.

And there lies the challenge for any series, especially one launching under the Netflix model, where the premiere of Season 1 immediately leads to questions about when might expect Season 2 and what we might expect from it. What Vinny Chase made us realize, as the central figure of “Medellin,” is that an antihero narrative that commits to its antihero is more compelling than something that tries to split the difference; which is unfortunately where “Narcos” ends up aiming.

Here’s the unavoidable truth: An unlikeable character, no matter the circumstances, remains unlikeable, but an unlikeable character trumps a bland blonde man whose position of authority appears to be his only really interesting character trait, no matter how much voice-over he utters.

In a perfect world, Vinny Chase would be filling the gaps here. But no world truly knows perfection.

Grade: C+

“Narcos” is streaming now on Netflix. “Medellin” does not actually exist.

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