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Review: Ozark

Breaking Bad goes rural in Netflix’s latest big series

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It’s a turbulent time for Netflix.  The newly released Okja was criticised heavily for being screened at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Also, two of the company’s original series – Baz Luhrman’s The Get Down and the Wachowskis’s Sense8 – have been cancelled, after both striving to be to Netflix’s ‘next big thing’, but falling short.

Yet from the murky depths of uncertainty and financial struggle, a dark horse has emerged, in the form of Ozark. It stars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney. The former plays Marty Byrde – a loving father of a suburban Chicago family, married to Linney’s Wendy.

However, behind the family man façade, he happens to be involved in a money laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel.  After an altercation with the cartel’s boss, played chillingly by Esai Morales, Marty is forced to move with his family to the Missouri highlands of the Ozarks, where he must repay the crime kingpin through setting up a money laundering system in the rural society.

It comes as no surprise that Bateman flourishes as the show’s protagonist.  Despite his foray into distinctly average comedies such as Horrible Bosses and The Change-Up, the actor is best known for his hilarious portrayal of Michael Bluth in Fox’s excellent comedy show Arrested Development.  Fans of the series — which launched stars such as Michael Cera and Will Arnett — will doubtlessly point out the similarities between Bluth and Byrde. Both are family men with estranged families who constantly teeter on the edge of crisis.

Yet it would probably be more apt to compare the character of Marty to Walter White in AMC’s Breaking Bad.  Akin to Bryan Cranston’s White, at times more anti-hero than hero, Marty’s involvement in crime is all for his family, but simultaneously is what slowly tears his loved ones apart.

His teenage daughter resents her parents for taking her away from her friends back home.  Her younger brother strives to understand what it really is that his father is involved in.  And Marty’s wife Wendy has a secret of her own, in the form of an affair.

Ozark is witty and at times comic, but don’t let rom-com veteran Bateman’s involvement fool you.  The series is far from a comedy.  The tone at times matches that of FX’s neo-noir Fargo – juxtaposing sharp quips and droll interactions between characters, with moments of malice and shocking violence.

The dysfunctional redneck family of the Langmores, led by Julia Garner’s Ruth, provide the majority of the show’s comic relief, through their desperate attempts to latch on to Marty’s dealings.

But it is Garner’s hillbilly teenager who steals the show.  Ruth is a young girl who has cunning and confidence way beyond her years, bullying and manipulating her older and much bigger family members into obeying her.

On the other end of the spectrum, the threat of Morales’ cartel ‘jefe’: Del, injects an omnipresent sense of paranoia and fear into the series’ narrative.  Just as things start to look up for the Byrdes, creators Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams will remind the audience of the immense predicament Marty and his family are really in, be it through a brief yet brooding message, or a fearsome phone call from Del to his launderer.

Other sources of danger for the protagonists come from Jason Butler Harner’s FBI agent Roy Petty, who incessantly monitors the Byrdes, and local crime lord Jacob Snell, played by Peter Mullan, rounding off a Game of Thrones-esque web of rivalry, loathing and deceit within the Ozark community.

Amongst a plethora of cheesy and showy Netflix originals, Ozark is an inventive, stylish and dark series which combines elements of black comedy with menacing thriller.  Bateman is superb, and is accompanied by an equally excellent supporting cast.

For fans of Breaking Bad, Fargo and True Detective, it is a must-watch.  With so many Netflix series getting the axe, here’s to hoping Ozark and its characters survive to live another season.