May 5, 2018
Binge or no? Narcos, season one: almost a true story
Narcos is addictive, so if you haven’t already binged this Netflix series based on the life and escapades of one Pablo Escobar, master criminal, cancel all your plans next weekend and have at it. It gave me great pleasure. Then again, back in the ‘80s, so did cocaine.
Like cocaine, my initial feeling of “Oh my god! This is better than sex!” quickly wore off with no afterglow. By episode seven, I was still interested but no longer infatuated.
Here are some of the reasons why I fell in love:
Some critics have complained that the voiceover is a little too reminiscent of a certain Scorsese movie. Balderdash, says I. Voiceover wasn’t original to Goodfellas. There’s a difference between a riff and a rip-off. It’s well employed here, not lazy storytelling.
The narrator, Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), an American DEA agent assigned to Colombia, is not so much telling us a story as helping us navigate our way through a non-linear, multiple point-of-view, bilingual narrative—giving context to what we’re seeing and allowing the show to work on a panoramic canvas. The narration also pre-empts the use early on of backstory-heavy dialogue, so when Colonel Carrillo picks up the phone in the opening scene, we don’t need to hear, “Hello, Colonel Carrillo here, the guy in charge of Search Block – the joint Colombian/DEA team – and boy do I hate the narcos. How can I help you?”
The voiceover doesn’t work alone. Every shot in those first few minutes will take on a different significance later. When Steve Murphy tells you to pay attention because something is important, he’s doing you a favor. Even if your Spanish is good enough to follow without the subtitles, this is not a show you want to multi-task through. It needs to be watched. It’s also probably one of the most stunning television landscapes since some other show about a drug kingpin that was set in New Mexico.
The Opening Credits and Authenticity
Like Homeland and The Americans, the show opens with a montage of relevant images. In this case, they are much more specific to the show than the stock footage of the girl with the hula-hoop seen in the credits of both The Americans and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The photos include the “real” Steve Murphy (the goofy guy with the cap who looks like Ron Howard) as well as his “real” partner and the “real” Escobar. There’s also a photo that goes by fast, but trust me, it’s going to be recreated in the series finale. There’s even Escobar’s home movies filmed on his Hacienda Nopoles, where his menagerie included tigers and lions and zebras and some hippos whose descendents are still running around loose. The mixing of real images and dramatized action continues in the episodes. While it seemed a little jarring at first, it was another reminder that the most unlikely events happened.
Tuyo (Yours) was written for the series but is performed within the first episode as though it were an old standard. The melody is haunting, and the lyrics, which Pablo and his cousin will soon start drunk-singing, are dead on. On the surface it’s a love song, but it’s one of those semi-creepy obsessive love songs like Every Breath You Take. Is it describing Pablo Escobar’s relationship with Colombia, or Colombia itself, or cocaine, or ambition? It’s a song that ends with the repeated line, “I will be yours,” but is that a promise or a threat?
Before we see anything else, we see these words on a screen:
“Magical realism is what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting, is invaded by something too strange to believe.”
That’s a creative definition. Usually, magical realism is defined as naturalistic fiction in which fantastical elements are accepted as things that happen in “real” life.
“The land of magical realism” is the official slogan of the Colombian tourist board, and Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez was its greatest practitioner. It takes some heuvos to open with that, especially when you’re telling the story of the criminal who practically ran Colombia, and nearly destroyed it, when the history is recent enough that the people who lived it remember it, and when the creators of the series and most of the cast aren’t even Colombian. It would be like trying to tell a story about, say, the civil rights movement in the United States with an all-British cast, with some unknown (to us) Brit playing Martin Luther King, Jr., and another as LBJ. What’s that you say?
Narcos, like Garcia Marquez’s best-known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, has a non-linear structure with plenty of time jumps. Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, it begins more or less in the middle and takes awhile (episode seven) to get back to where we started. One Hundred Years of Solitude famously opens with a man facing the firing squad remembering something from his distant past. There’s even a bit in the pilot that seems to directly reference that opening. While not featured in the first season, it wouldn’t be a shock if Garcia Marquez himself showed up as a character next season. He did, after all, write a non-fiction “novel” about Escobar’s kidnapping spree.
Sure magical realism has been done on television before. The one-eyed teddy bear falling from the colliding plane and landing in the pool of Walter White – the man whose actions had inadvertently caused the disaster – would be one example, but that was fiction. Telling us a true story that’s too fantastic to be believed and making it believable is tougher.
Another ballsy choice is expecting notoriously monolingual Americans to watch something with subtitles. Narcos doesn’t give us brown people speaking English to each other with strange accents (a device still being used on shows like Tyrant on FX, which you’re not watching for a reason).
Gun-Fucking and Other Life Styles of the Rich and Infamous
Yes, there is a scene where Pablo and his lady friend get into some gunplay. Fact check: yes, he did have a hot television reporter girlfriend probably as ruthless and ambitious as he was, although they changed her name on the show to protect the guilty-but-never-charged. Don’t know about the gun-fucking, but she did write a book.
Narcos can be gory, and really bad things happen to people and occasionally animals. But because it’s “true,” you never feel like it’s a totally exploitative, guilty pleasure. If you’re a teenager and your mom tells you to get off the damn computer, you can reply, “I’m learning something! This is history!”
In addition to an overall stellar cast, Brazilian actor Wagner Maura should win a special award for Best Actor Playing a Drug Kingpin Ever, and I say that as major fan of both Bryan Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito. Special mention to Luis Guzman, who has played too many noble Latinos and here gets to let loose as a bad guy’s bad guy.
Here’s Why I Quickly (By Episode 7) Got Over My Ginormous Show-Crush
Let’s get back to that voiceover. Yes, it works, but the narrator’s viewpoint is awfully limited. After the first episode, the less we hear from Steve, the better the show works. The real Steve Murphy retired after a long DEA career and still believes that marijuana, MARIJUANA, should be illegal. Some of the things he says in the beginning should tip us off he’s not the most reliable of narrators. In trying to explain to the audience that sometimes bad people do good things and vice versa, he uses General Pinochet as an example. Pinochet, we’re told by Steve, was “bad” for executing innocent people including writers, artists, intellectuals, etc., but he was “good” for executing everyone associated with the drug trade, secretly and without trial. Or maybe he was good for fighting the commies but the extrajudicial executions of the drug dealers were wrong? See how confusing this bad and good thing gets?
Don’t get me wrong. Unreliable narrators are my favorite fictional device. But they never really establish Steve as unreliable. There’s no ironic distance between his words and what we see on the screen. We’re pretty much getting his version, and because you can fact check and find most of what he says checks out, it feels like we should believe him. And it seems like the writers, who spent a long time listening to the war stories told by him and his partner, Javier Peña, did believe him—without reservation.
For all the detailed history we’re given of the drug trade’s ties to leftist groups and governments, the word “Contra-gate” is not uttered once. The CIA is treated as an occasional hindrance to the DEA. The CIA’s collaboration with para-military elements and the extrajudicial torture and execution of communists is referenced. However, their ties to narco-traffickers to raise funds for the Contras is not, nor is America’s insatiable appetite for narcotics talked about much.
Why is Steve Murphy the one telling us this story? And how can someone who doesn’t even speak the language really know what’s going on? Almost everything we see relating specifically to Murphy is fiction. The real Steve Murphy didn’t arrive in Colombia ‘til later than the fictional one. He had no personal baggage with Escobar. Escobar was about to go to “jail” the day he arrived. So why didn’t they tell the story from the point of view of his partner, Javier Peña?
Javier, also an American DEA agent, spoke Spanish and had been there for years when Murphy arrived. Is Murphy’s monolingualism a way to give us a break from the subtitles? Is he the narrator because he’s more of a fish out of water than Javi? Or did the producers think it would be easier for an American audience to identify with a white, non-Spanish-speaking narrator? Are they telling us a version of events they think will be more palatable for an American audience, or did their “research” consist of listening to a couple of old drug war warriors talking?
Whatever I Said Before about Authenticity, I Was Wrong
Let’s rethink those real photos. Maybe reminding us that it really happened by metaphorically shouting, “See! Look at the photos and newspapers!” is the kind of gimmick and doesn’t actually make for interesting drama. There are points where the writers, director, and performers are very good at finding the threads that make this not just a “docudrama” but possibly great storytelling. There’s a moment when Escobar is humiliated after he tries to take his place in Congress. The direction, the writing, and the performance all give us insight into the man’s narcissism and ego. We understand how that’s the point that helps explain the inexplicable: how he could turn on Colombia itself, why he declared “war” on his own country. It worked because it gave us an experience and insight that would have been much harder to convey in a book or documentary.
But there was too much made-up stuff, especially involving Murphy’s storyline that felt false and contrived. Like, yes, he did really take his wife with him and adopt a daughter in Colombia, but the entire subplot of his wife meeting the commie-girl who is the one living person who can actually connect Escobar to the Palace of Justice siege by the M-19 rebels was ridiculous. And worse, after giving us the fictional subplot, they had no idea what to do with it. Yes, Murphy did adopt a daughter during his time in Colombia, but did he really scoop her up, the only survivor of a massacre like the way Harry Morgan scooped up Dexter? (And will we get a sequel, set twenty-something years later, where she’s a trained CIA assassin?) There’s also a very tacked-on “conflict” between the two partners that appears to be there for no other purpose than “need moar plot.” It’s like the writers don’t trust the true story of a drug lord who amassed a humongous fortune, had a personal game preserve, and almost took over a nation to be interesting enough to hold our attention, or they think an American audience will only relate if it’s somehow “about” a relatable (white, English-speaking) American.
I still think the song is beautiful, but it gave me an earworm, and in my head the melody kept switching to Sway, which it resembles more than a little.
Yeah, about those heuvos. Not to be politically correct, but would it have killed them to have a few Colombians playing Colombians, given that it’s a Colombian story shot in Colombia and they’re opening with the magical realism quote? It’s not just Escobar being played by a Brazilian. Go through the list and you’ll find all the major roles were taken by Mexicans (Raul Mendez as Cecar Gaviria), Cubans (Maurice Compte as Colonel Carrillo), Americans, Spaniards, etc. Basically everyone but Colombians. It’s also directed by a Brazilian and written by Americans. You start to wonder how Colombians even feel about this version.
So will I be watching next season? Sure. It’s still a visually stunning show with some amazing storytelling chops and kickass performances. But watching Narcos is like that good time you might have had once in an altered state that just didn’t seem the same when the effects of whatever you ingested or inhaled wore off. It’s like going to bed with Kevin Costner (back before he became a grumpy old man) only to wake up in a basement with some low-life grifter named Jimmy McGill.
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