I just finished the first season of Netflix’s original series, Ozark. I have to admit, I wasn’t immediately sold on it. The crime drama centres around Marty Byrde, (played by Jason Bateman); a financial advisor who finds himself on the wrong side of the dangerous Mexican cartel he works for. In a desperate attempt to keep himself and his family alive, Marty strikes a deal and relocates the family from Chicago, to the Ozarks in Missouri, where he must launder 8 million dollars by the end of the summer.
The series has all the signs of a good drama. Intrigue, dissonance, an array of unscrupulous characters, and a healthy dose of good old fashioned conflict. The writing is sharp and the plot seems to propel itself forward smoothly enough. Where the show is let down, however, is in the lack of diversity of character. With an abundance of different people in the show, one would think they would each have a distinct set of personality traits that set them apart from the rest. But by the second or third episode, it became clear that the actors were all playing variations of the same persona; bland, wooden and ultimately watered down. I felt like the entire show was spoken in muted monotone, and the characters all had this kind of droopy hopelessness about them. It seemed like the supporting cast blended into one giant background character; the lodge owner Rachel, practically indistinguishable from FBI agent Roy Petty; or awkward Wyatt Langmore who is as resolutely uninteresting as Sam, the real estate agent.
The obvious exceptions to this are Ruth (played by Julia Garner) who is exactly the kind of no nonsense, tough talking, out of the box thinker required to inject some much needed fire into the series. And even she took me a few episodes to really warm to, though I had to admire her propensity for ruthlessness right from the start. She has a depth the other characters seem to lack, hinted at within the brief exchanges with her incarcerated father, and her unexpected tenderness towards her cousins. Jonah, with an intelligence that seems to far outweigh that of his older sister, his innocent curiosity, and his willingness to do what it takes to protect his family, is another welcome change to the boring character landscape.
This, coupled with an overuse of a grey/blue colour palette, did a lot to give Ozark the feel of something as cold and lifeless as a body on a slab. But, it’s saving grace lies in the execution. As a viewer, I found myself curious to see how it would play out for the Byrde family, with adversity bearing down on them from all sides, and new conflict arising in the midst of the old. You can’t help but root for them, as you watch them band together despite past infidelities, and hold true to family values that become more important to them with each passing episode. It’s true, the show has a slow burn, and you don’t quite realise how far it has progressed until the last few episodes, where things really start to heat up (literally!), but it comes together in such a way that I’m pleased to hear they’ve announced a second season.
Ozark has hard suspense interlaced with hints of tenderness, a seriousness that is set off by the odd bit of humour, and a satisfying combination of stylish production and absolute plausibility. The first season leaves you with an open ended finale that suggests that the troubles Marty has battled all season are only just beginning and the show, despite its shortcomings, provides a solid ten episodes of entertainment.