NETFLIX’s latest drama, NARCOS, takes a different tact than most of the previous series do. The story of infamous Columbian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, is mixed with the DEA agent that hunts him, Steve Murphy, to give viewers a history lesson. It’s scripted drama based on a true story, one bloody and fantastical.
The first thing that strikes me about NARCOS is that it really is a history lesson. Not one that could be used in history classes, given its graphic, violent content, but still, there is a lot of truth in the way it unfolds. It feels, in many ways, like the film Argo, with more voice-over exposition. Not everything that happens on screen is factually true, I’m sure, but it’s close enough to qualify as educational as well as entertaining.
The authority in which the narration is done gives the show some gravitas. I compared it to Argo, and I’m sure that comparison was drawn by the production on purpose. NARCO has the feeling of a high-quality biopic in that regard, and uses the common trope of mixing the famous (Escobar) with the lesser-known (Murphy) in telling the complete story. The audience will learn much more about Escobar than they did watching Entourage.
Of course, NARCOS has ten hours to tell its tale, versus the two a movie gets, and so can take its time. It zooms through the first couple of years in a single installment, beginning with Escobar (Wagner Moura, Paraiso Tropical) not even involved in the cocaine world to running a full-fledged empire. But Escobar stayed in power for many years, so there’s at least a full season in this, and I assume things will slow down as it goes on.
Most of NARCOS’s premiere installment is focused on Escobar himself, which seems a little strange, since Murphy (Boyd Holbrook, The Big C, Gone Girl) feels like the lead. I like that we’re not just viewing things from the law enforcement perspective, though, getting a behind-the-scenes look at how Escobar makes things work, and the series is kind of presented as Murphy’s telling of the whole thing after it’s been complete, making me think he will survive, unlike so many other players.
More of a wild card is Murphy’s partner, Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones, Graceland). He intrigues early in the pilot, then disappears as the show flashes back and builds back up to the time in which Murphy actually gets to Columbia. It is hard to get a read on his role at first, so I look forward to seeing more of that, as he seems like he may be a catalyst to even more violence.
One thing that confuses me is the tendency NARCOS has to mix the real stuff in with the fiction. I have no problem with the show using actual footage of Nixon and Reagan because they aren’t characters, existing only on the TV screens. But when a mug shot of Moura’s Escobar is suddenly replaced with the real man, it takes viewers out of the world a bit, re-emphasizing the documentary aspect at the expense of storytelling.
And really, that’s my problem with NARCOS. While it seems very well made, and I will likely watch more of it myself, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It’s teaching too much and too dry in places to hit the mass appeal of the action-loving crowd, yet too gritty and bloody to strike the fancy of many of the family-friendly documentary niche. It sidetracks to give us a human element, such as showing the death of a pregnant mule, but that takes us away from the characters. It is worth watching and I’m sure will find fans, but by not picking a path and committing to it, it risks alienating many of what could be its core viewership.
The full first season of NARCOS is available now on Netflix.