Narcos: Pablo Escobar by Way of Ken Burns

The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.


Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.

As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.

The Escobar story is complex enough to fill 10 episodes of television, for sure, and Narcos spares no attention to detail. But that methodical approach comes at the cost of any real drama or engaging side-characters. As Holbrook’s narration explains every step in the rise of Escobar’s cartel, the effect is more like a Ken Burns documentary than an engaging serialized drama.

As with every Netflix show, the pace does eventually pick up. At first, Escobar is the only character who can remotely hold the audience’s attention, even though his plotline is the most formulaic. The show gives him an air of total authority from minute one, so viewers know he’s going to successfully stare down every police official and wipe out every criminal rival he runs into. Still, Moura plays him with bristling, commanding energy. Escobar starts out as a chubby, disheveled small-time smuggler, but from his opening scenes, Moura invests the character with intelligence and ruthlessness.

In short, Moura is doing Escobar right, and the set dressings around him are spectacular. But everything else is 100 percent paint-by-numbers. The narration is straight out of Goodfellas (or a million other Scorsese knock-offs), mixing pure exposition with half-baked musings on magical realism or Reagan-era realpolitik. Murphy introduces himself as a DEA flunky chasing down pot-dealing hippies before the war on drugs exploded; later, he’s catapulted into the hunt for Escobar and the futile war against the vast cocaine industry. Some narrative diversions, like a look at the drug mules (all women, some pregnant) smuggling bags of cocaine into the country inside their stomachs, add to the story, but others feel unnecessary.

The introduction of the Mexican DEA agent Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) livens things up a little, but Narcos takes its time in building momentum. As The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan discussed most recently, Netflix has helped popularize “binge watching” and yet its own shows can be tough to binge on—each season functions more like a novel than a well-paced episodic serial. Shows like Bloodline, House of Cards, and Sense8 take more than half their running time for their plots to really kick into high gear, and Narcos is no exception. It has engaging performances and a fully realized aesthetic, but is that enough to draw the viewer in for hour after hour of slow-moving exposition?

Perhaps. The Netflix model, of course, isn’t weighed to deliver immediate ratings success but to keep viewers on the hook for months, and the studio’s willingness to indulge TV creators who want to take a while to get to the meat of their stories is laudable. But unless you’re extremely interested in the history of the Colombian drug trade or want the kind of Escobar story that only a thick, well-researched biography could deliver, it’s hard to pinpoint what in the early episodes of Narcos would keep viewers from giving up.

Even as a gangster show, it doesn’t feel particularly original. The tense standoffs and tragic double-crosses of Escobar’s world are well-trafficked (no pun intended) dramatic territory, and the DEA side of things is even less engaging, mostly because Holbrook’s narrator character is lackluster when he’s actually on-screen. Narcos avoids feeling exploitative and doesn’t come across as a lazy effort, but it directs what energy it does have to all the wrong places—real-world detail, a painstakingly slow story, a frequently redundant voice-over that drops in often just to tell viewers what’s happening on screen. It’s a worthy effort, to be sure, but worthy doesn’t always equal entertaining.