It’s no surprise that Pablo Escobar’s decades-long rise from petty street crime to the “The King of Cocaine” has inspired more than a dozen iterations on screen. Beyond the varied TV documentaries, his persona has loomed large in cinema and the small screen ever since his inspiration for Paul Shenar’s Sosa character in 1983’s “Scarface”; Cliff Curtis’ brief but effective turn in “Blow”; last year’s “Escobar: Paradise Lost” starring Benicio del Toro; and the fantastic documentary “The Two Escobars.” The list of upcoming and recent failed attempts at telling Escobar’s story is nearly as long (Oliver Stone and Joe Carnahan each tried, unsuccessfully, to mount a film), and while the kingpin is clearly attractive to Hollywood and beyond, one constant remains — he’s yet to be the lead character in his own story. And it’s an unfortunate fact that continues with “Narcos,” the latest Netflix original series that purports to tell the epic tale of El Patrón but for some awful, misguided reason filters it all through the perspective of a bland gringo DEA agent.
Let’s start with the voiceover, as it’s the single most glaring flaw in this new series. The painfully miscast Boyd Holbrook (“Run All Night”) plays DEA agent Steve Murphy, tasked with taking down Escobar and the Medellín Cartel, who at one point were responsible for more than 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the US. In the first episode, which breathlessly sets up a lot of the players and setting, Murphy is established as our window into this story, but his perspective as an all-seeing omniscient narrator doesn’t make much sense. Even worse are the inane words he’s forced to utter, often just explaining what’s literally happening onscreen or reiterating something that was just said. It’s a curious misstep, constantly at odds with several themes in “Narcos.” Imagine watching “The Wire” with McNulty narrating every episode. It wouldn’t work, nor is it necessary to follow the incredibly complex world and characters of that show.
Creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro don’t have the confidence in their audience like David Simon did, and they pay for their lack of trust with a first season that, on paper, should’ve been a home run but instead is something of a bloop single. It’s a goddamn shame, really. Escobar remains an immensely fascinating subject, and there’s more than enough material from his end of things to fill out several seasons of television. As commendable as it is that Netflix clearly put a lot of money into a series with a heavy reliance on subtitles, one can’t help but feel the desperation to force an American perspective onto the show. When you have one of the most fascinating and dramatic criminal life stories ever lived for source material, why burden the narrative with elements that only take away from the man and his empire we really want to watch?
I’m surprised the epic sprawl and dense narrative in this debut season was another major weakness; it’s overstuffed yet not long enough. And it’s not clear yet what the future holds for the show, except where it will almost definitely go if Netflix renews it for a second go-round. While the finale reaches heights rarely hit in the prior episodes (at times it has the immediacy and raw, manhunting thrills of “Zero Dark Thirty”), it is nothing if not disappointingly anticlimactic. The writers of the show struggled to condense nearly two decades of story into these first ten episodes, but for anyone who knows the real-life spoilers for Escobar’s fate, there’s not much left to tell. Season one ends up feeling like one long, digressive origin story for the real manhunt, teased in the final (cheesy voiceover) line. If more episodes are coming, the filmmakers behind them will be wise to keep things more focused.
It’s too bad, because there’s a great show waiting to be found in all this rubble. Director José Padilha (the recent “Robocop” remake) was a smart choice to helm the first two episodes, as his prior Brazilian films “Bus 174” (a brilliant documentary), plus “Elite Squad” and its sequel, are all evidence of a gifted, confrontational, visual storyteller, and his style carries over well to “Narcos,” laying the groundwork for other talented South American filmmakers to step in (Guillermo Navarro, Oscar-winning DP for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” directs a few episodes as well). The visuals are jaw-dropping, especially when the three credited cinematographers take advantage of shooting in actual locations. Colombia in all its urban decay, high society mansions, political turmoil, and lush jungles never looked so good. There’s no shortage of stylish, Scorsese-esque visual tricks employed — freeze frames, constantly moving cameras, long unbroken shots, neon lighting, drone photography and the like — but what a shame it is when they’re ruined by that inescapable narration, like a perfectly cooked piece of steak slathered in ketchup.
There is one clear MVP involved: Wagner Moura. The immensely talented Brazilian leading man (he was in both “Elite Squad” movies and also “Elysium”) completely immerses himself in the part of Escobar, and gives one of the best performances in TV this year. Like Benicio del Toro before him, he is a perfect choice to portray the man, the myth and the legend, all in one. The silver lining in the disappointing ending this season is that Moura will be back if there’s more episodes. I can see why that decision was made (producers we’re probably scared of losing their top asset), even if it ultimately hurt this first season to not properly finish its story.
When you consider the promise of the subject matter, the large canvas granted by TV to tell a big story, and Netflix putting real money behind this project, it’s hard to think of “Narcos” as anything but a big letdown. For all the fleeting moments that work so well, there’s twice as many that fall flat or left me wanting more. There’s no denying Netflix has entered the big leagues with their original content, but failures like “Narcos” only highlight how desperate they are to be the next HBO (I counted five perfunctory sex scenes plus one rape in episode two alone). They’d be better served executing the story better than just dumping a bunch of blood, drugs and nudity all over the screen with little purpose.
For all the talent that was there behind and, for the most part, in front of, the camera, the result is so muddled that I have to wonder if there was too many cooks in this kitchen. Perhaps a more creative route would work better for this grand crime tale. After all, Netflix isn’t bound by the typical rules/structure of traditional TV. Why not make duel mini-series, one from the US side and the other focusing on Colombia? Or just focus strictly on Escobar and go from there. It’s hopefully not too late to right this ship if we get more episodes. But one thing is certain: great crime tales are all about immersing the viewer in the world of the characters, and “Narcos” never stuck its hooks in me. It even became a slog to finish about midway through. But, if this show can’t do it, maybe the next film about Escobar will let the man be at the center of his own story. [C-]