At the beginning of the first episode of Ozark, Netflix’s bleak drug drama du jour, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is in a kind of existential midlife funk: His wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), is cheating on him; his kids are growing into entitled nightmares; and his job as a financial adviser appears to be lamentably unfulfilling. Then, suddenly, the show flips everything on its head. Marty’s business partner has apparently been stealing millions from a Mexican drug lord and is murdered in front of him. Marty’s only recourse is to plead for his life and propose a new plan—he’ll launder $500 million in drug money by moving to the Lake of the Ozarks, a man-made reservoir in Missouri and a popular holiday destination that he argues will be less conspicuous to the FBI.
Ozark, which contains so many fragments and threads from existing prestige shows that it sometimes feels like a particularly grim televisual quilt, is at least pleasingly tense in its first episode. Smug, larcenous businessmen are shot in the head. Bodies appear out of thin air (literally). Del (Esai Morales), the requisite ruthless cartel member, threatens not only Marty’s life but the lives of his wife and children while dissolving bodies in tubs of acid. It’s fair to say that the pressure on Marty to deliver is substantial. Which is why it’s so perplexing when he waddles morosely through the next six episodes with all the energy of a post-divorce Ross from Friends. A midlife crisis is one thing, but a persistent, dull, woe-is-me malaise when three separate crime families are threatening your loved ones starts to feel like self-indulgence.
Ozark has the potential to be many interesting things, and the fact that it commits to none of them feels like overextension. With America’s rural and coastal divide sharper than ever, a premise that drops a tony Chicago family into flyover country is full of promise, particularly because Bill Dubuque, the show’s creator, worked in the area during college, and still lives in Missouri. Even if you’re as hell-bent on dourness as Ozark is, the environment is rich with narrative potential, as the stories of Daniel Woodrell and the 2010 film Winter’s Bone would attest. And yet Ozark can’t get into it. It wants to unpack this intriguing rural community, but it also wants to be a drama about an unlikely criminal, like Breaking Bad, and a show about a boring marriage revived by a shared mission, like The Americans, and a fable about how everyone’s trying to make a living the best way they know how, just like The Wire.
With all these conflicting goals, Ozark mostly flops weakly from crisis to crisis, like one of the catfish Marty pretends to know how to bait. By the end of the second episode, he and Wendy, their teenage daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and their young son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) are installed in a lakefront house, and Marty has been assigned the test of laundering $8 million to prove he can make it in this new community. His arrogance, of course, is misplaced. The locals have their own ways of doing things, and some even appear to be doing some laundering of their own. There are the requisite culture clashes (a particularly dull plot point revolves around Wendy’s inability to source organic pistachio ice cream) and lessons about condescension. And yet the show itself often views its local characters through a rather snotty lens, from the homophobic brawlers rearing bobcat kittens to the heavily pregnant stripper working a pole.
Bateman, who also directed four of the series’s 10 episodes, is always an arresting on-camera presence, but Marty’s enigmatic qualities start to feel maddeningly inconsistent midway through. In moments of crisis, he has the bravado and the balls to talk himself out of certain death, but the rest of the time he’s strangely inept, trusting the wrong people, saying the wrong things, and getting into ever more trouble. He’s a helmet-wearing bicycle dad in a community full of Ford pickups, but he also proves repeatedly how ruthless he can be. This particular cocktail of comical dorkiness and cold business-mindedness seems like a deliberate attempt to ape Walter White, but Ozark’s commitment to shrouding Marty’s motivations in mystery makes him less persuasive.
Linney, as Wendy, tries to make her shrewish, unfaithful wife character dynamic rather than sympathetic, but she isn’t really given the storylines to pull it off (a flashback episode late in the series gives her more to work with). One distinctive element of Ozark is that its female characters are all steely to the core—Charlotte punches a local only a few episodes in, and a local bar owner (Jordana Spiro) isn’t as easy a mark for Marty as she seems. The most compelling presence is Ruth (Julia Garner), a 19-year-old described by the sheriff as smart and mean, with her criminal potential “mostly untapped.” With her cherubic blonde curls and Tupac shirts, Ruth is one of the characters the show really tries to flesh out, proving what it could do if it stuck with wholly original ideas.
In a twist on prestige-TV tropes, where teenage daughters tend to be utilized more than sons (Bobby Draper syndrome), Jonah is actually more interesting than Charlotte, with even his parents trying to figure out whether he’s morbid in a sociopath way or a normal, pre-teen boy way. But then there’s Agent Petty (Jason Butler Harner), who hovers on the periphery like a particularly irritating mosquito and whose presence as an FBI agent pursuing Marty adds absolutely nothing to proceedings. Given how laconically Marty responds to the bloodthirsty drug dealers on his back, who cares about some feds thrown into the mix? In combination with the dull gray and blue filters that wash everything out, and the oppressive, low-frequency soundtrack meant to amp up the tension, it all starts to feel like a lot of work for a very uncertain payoff.