The show is more bad than ‘Breaking Bad,’ but it is captivating.
Ahead of its release, the Netflix drama Ozark sounded like a Breaking Bad knockoff. A middle-class suburban family man winds up involved in the dangerous world of the drug trade? Yeah, superficially the premise sounds similar. Producer/director/star Jason Bateman even had to acknowledge and defend against the comparison. When reviews began pouring out, though, the truth should have been made clear. Ozark has very little in common with AMC’s award-winning hit. It’s its own thing, a mediocre series but still very watchable on one of the most accessible platforms.
Critics jumped on the Breaking Bad bandwagon because that also is an easy thing to do. Not all reviews make the comparison positively, but those that do go overboard. “Perfect for Breaking Bad Fans,” “The Must-See Show for Breaking Bad Fanatics,” “Perfect If You Miss Breaking Bad,” and “Breaking Bad Fans Have Found Their New Fix” are among the catchiest headlines. One of the more mixed reviews even went with “Ozark Might Be Too Much Like Breaking Bad for Its Own Good.” As far as it being a “fix” for those who miss Breaking Bad, there’s already the spin-off prequel Better Call Saul, and that show is actually outstanding.
But Ozark, which has just been renewed for a second season, is more engaging for a lot of viewers because it’s all plot, no nuance. Certainly what many fans liked most about Breaking Bad was its story action rather than its directorial craft or even its slowly earned character development. That audience surely appreciates that Ozark jumps right into the thick of its premise of a Chicago-based financial planner relocating to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks for a money laundering scheme that will keep him in good standing with his drug cartel bosses. Only later is the origin of protagonist Marty Byrde’s (Bateman) involvement with the cartel shown in a flashback episode.
Some of the positive reviews of the show that don’t bother with the easy comparison still go overboard with the praise for Ozark, creating higher expectations than the series deserves. Hyperbole is rampant in the digital age as critics and their sites compete for traffic with review headlines and hot takes that will stand out, and with TV reviews now part of Rotten Tomatoes there’s a need to go full favor or full pan. But television is not so easily stamped with a full-on fresh or rotten marker. Seasons may consist of good and bad episodes, and with so much time there can be a lot to like and a lot to dislike as they play out.
Ozark is another mixed-bag series for Netflix (see Friends from College), the perfect outlet for middling entertainment due to its direct reach with subscribers who centralize their viewing through this one dominant streaming service. The show is just good enough, especially as it goes on and introduces the always stellar Peter Mullan as a local heroin magnate and gives Julia Garner the closest thing to a convincing character arc — that she performs flawlessly in spite of the writing of her evolution still being rather perfunctory. Mostly it’s just compelling because it’s so driven by things happening, and we follow along to see what’s next, not necessarily thinking about how or why those things are happening when we get to them.
What’s strange about Ozark‘s weakness when it comes to the hows and whys is that it literally avoids showing scenes that might offer depictions of character struggles with certain actions. For example, when Garner’s character, Ruth, kills two of her uncles in the penultimate episode, that should weigh very heavily on her, as she decides to do it hastily, while she’s rigging the wiring that will electrocute them, and after it’s done. We don’t see her actions because the show would rather the deaths be a surprise. And that’s fine, but we don’t get much emotional time with Ruth afterward either, just a bit of dialogue and the plot continues moving.
If the show does want to spend extra time on a character’s struggle, it’s handled dishonestly. We don’t get a believable reaction from or even enough time with Pastor Young (Michael Mosley) when he discovers his stunningly pristine-condition forced-birthed baby but no sign of his surely murdered wife, yet later we get an extended bit of him submerging his newborn child in the lake because that’s an easy and sensational way to get a bigger reaction from the audience. Even if he does think about drowning the baby before changing his mind and turning it into a baptism, the scene is deceptive in its pacing so we’re briefly certain the infant is dead.
The problem with Ozark leaning so heavily on its machinations is that most of the time they’re hard to buy. From the weird living arrangement the Byrdes are offered and accept to the rarely convincing idea of a death by out-of-nowhere-truck to the fortuitous convolution of the gay romance to the congregation on the water — even before it’s revealed to be a ridiculous heroin distribution front — there’s much to roll your eyes at. But so many plates are spinning in the show, with more and more added over the season, that we’re too busy making sure it doesn’t all come crashing apart to fixate on any one piece that seems too far out.
Fittingly, though, the series’ constant activity is analogous to its main character’s own schematic babbling. Marty gets out of trouble by talking, always more convincingly to the people on screen than for the viewer. He always has a quick solution or idea to suggest, a next step to propose, and sometimes even he’s clearly not sure of the plan himself, but it keeps him alive and his story moving. Ozark does all that to its audience, assuring us that it’s getting better while actually just leading us through more faulty construction. Amazingly it manages to maintain this without an appealing or even interesting main character to latch onto.
If there is another show worthy of comparison to Ozark, it’s Arrested Development. In both, Bateman plays a centerpiece straight man who keeps trying to fix problems — for his family and for a business that has been involved in illegal activity — caused by supporting characters doing stupid things. And over time they both make many wrong choices themselves, albeit with some intelligence and desperation. The big difference here (besides it not being for laughs) is that Marty isn’t morally grounded like Michael Bluth. You want Michael to make it through the chaos around him, while Marty has no qualities that make him worth rooting for. He could have been killed off in the end without tears shed.
Ozark is not a great show, but once you’ve given it a few episodes you’re easily hooked, as much as any plot-driven effort can grab you on curiosity alone. Even going forth, while the Season 1 finale doesn’t leave us with much in the way of a cliffhanger, there are things that happen that will lead to other things happening that may be of some minor concern to us as invested viewers. For one thing, we need to see where Rachel (Jordana Spiro), one of the few entirely likable characters, runs off to with her sack of cash —actually, can the whole show pivot to make her the focus?
If you have time for a lot of television and are always locked onto your Netflix app with a need for something, anything, to watch, then Ozark isn’t the worst thing to get wrapped up in for 10 hours. Unfortunately, too many critics promised something of greater quality and substance both in its comparisons to one of modern television’s masterpieces and its general hype, and that’s some bad bait that a lot of us fell for.