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‘Ozark’ Is So Familiar That It’s Fun

You have seen this type of antihero show before — but somehow predictability is the Netflix show’s greatest asset

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

There’s something captivating in how brazenly — gleefully, almost — Ozark checks the boxes of the post-antihero crime drama. The words “gritty bingo” figure prominently in my notes on Netflix’s latest hour, and Ozark, the Jason Bateman–fronted series in which high finance meets a low-rent vacation town, plays the hypothetical game with aplomb. Menacing, self-serious monologues: check. Sex workers used as set decoration: check. A complicit wife who claims, regarding her latest semilegal action, “I did it for our family”: check. That’s game!

With Bloodline, Narcos, and now Ozark, Netflix has developed something of a specialty in this slow-and-steady strain of show, as specific to Peak TV as its predecessor was to the Golden Age. Piggybacking off of aughts-era stalwarts like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, the antihero-by-numbers genre’s pitfalls are by now well known and even better documented: relentless darkness, both literal and thematic; storytelling that’s often sluggish and almost always overlong; the equation of grim disposition with profundity. Not every offender is equally guilty — Narcos, for one, has its fervent partisans here at The Ringer — but the tics are common enough that they’ve coalesced into a recognizable stereotype.

Ozark embraces them all, and with such abandon that the show occasionally crashes through the barrier between boring retread and high camp. That doesn’t necessarily redeem the show as a concept, which still boils down to “unrepentant man we’re supposed to root for against his really-no-worse adversaries.” It does, however, make for an oddly fascinating viewing experience. The bad guy who looks like a good and/or glamorous guy may be deep into the late stages of his decay, but watching his transformation into caricature might be entertainment enough.

Bateman’s riff on the stock character is Marty Byrde, a mild-mannered Chicago accountant who launders money for a Mexican drug cartel on the side. Ozark isn’t particularly interested in how Marty got so embroiled in organized crime, nor in exploring the profound moral ambivalence (at best) that allows him to do so. Instead, the show teleports Marty, his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and their two kids to southern Missouri with a plot development so thin one of the show’s own characters refers to the scheme as “straw-grasping bullshit.” To prove his loyalty to the cartel, which has discovered that Marty’s longtime business partner has been skimming off the top and dissolved his corpse in acid accordingly, Marty proposes moving to Lake of the Ozarks to set up a money-laundering operation away from the FBI’s prying eyes. The cartel swiftly pivots from threatening Marty’s life to tentatively trusting him with a new business venture, albeit for no readily apparent reason. No matter; more has been started with less.

It all feels a bit reverse-engineered, both as story and as career pivot. (In addition to starring and executive producing, Bateman also directed four of the first season’s 10 episodes; in other words, Ozark is a personalized, self-selected starring vehicle.) That cart-before-the-horse mentality is especially evident in how uncritically the show is in Marty’s corner, and how little work it does to get us in there with it. When Marty discovers Wendy’s infidelity just before everything hits the fan, we’re meant to relate to the skin-crawling sexual fantasy Marty has of a prostitute reassuring him that she wouldn’t have cheated if he’d kept her comfortable for 20 years. (Wendy, for her part, is a generically tough swipe at a Strong Female Character. Having her be in on Marty’s crimes is a nice twist on the Cable Wife archetype, but it’s not nearly enough to make her a real character.) We’re also meant to be in awe of Marty’s decidedly un-awesome skill set, i.e., glorified Excel wizardry. At one point in the pilot, the phrase “liquidity ratio laws” is used as an intimidation tactic. It works on the bank employee being threatened, though not the viewer.

And yet because Ozark lays its agenda so bare, it’s easier to appreciate the nakedness of its clichés. Sometimes, the show even flirts with self-awareness: The opening voice-over, in which Marty asks, “What is money?,” ends with the revelation that Marty is actually talking to some milquetoast potential clients for the legitimate side of his business; an aggrieved rant as Marty prepares to confront Wendy about her cheating is abruptly cut off by her lover’s body smacking the pavement. (The cartel enforcer has thrown him off a balcony.) As the sole townie given enough texture to come across as an individual, Julia Garner sells the savvy and ferocity of a young woman who’s determined to claw her way out of the area’s vicious cycle of poverty. She’s a criminal, too, but with all the motivation Marty lacks and all the swagger Ozark thinks he has.

Mostly, though, it’s just fun to anticipate the next components of the very obvious blueprint. A rural small town means True Detective–like ogling at regional natives for a touch of local color; sure enough, there’s a revival meeting held on a cluster of motorboats. A white-collar professional at the series’ center means fetishizing the minutiae of said profession; sure enough, Marty’s dialogue is filled with forced metaphors (“A family is like a small business”) and attempted bons mots that can’t help but fall flat on their face (“You sentimentalize property, you can kiss profits goodbye”). (Ozark was cocreated by Accountant screenwriter Bill Dubuque, and I’m desperate to learn what incident in Dubuque’s past convinced him that the money manager in every crime story is the real badass.) Ozark cleaves so faithfully to type that it’s almost relaxing. You won’t necessarily buy into Ozark’s strenuous bleakness, but you can dispassionately observe it going through the motions while you do your laundry.

As a reliable collection of tropes, the diluted antihero show has a long way to go before it can offer the comforting monotony of, say, a good procedural. The genre does, however, have the makings of a “watch this if you like that” form of base appeal, the kind that, not coincidentally, is perfectly suited to Netflix’s recommendation algorithm. You know exactly what you’re getting when you hit play on a series like Ozark, and Ozark knows that you know. This show won’t reach the heights of the nearly 20-year-old titans whose iconography it’s recycling, but maybe Ozark is content to be a follower instead of a leader — and maybe that contentment is what makes Ozark fun in spite of itself.