Have you been missing Walter White? Are nine-year-old “Breaking Bad” episodes not satisfying your hunger for angry, middle-aged, white male antiheroes?
The people behind “Ozark,” a new Netflix series that starts streaming on Friday, appear to think so. Their antihero, Marty Byrde, meets all the criteria, and as with Walter White, his anger is fueled by a sense of unkept American promises. He’s spent his life grinding away at a job to provide for his family’s future, and suddenly everything is snatched away from him. Who wouldn’t break bad?
Except that Byrde, a Chicago financial planner played by Jason Bateman with the aggressive blandness of an airline gate agent, is already bad. His primary occupation for many years has been laundering money for what he always refers to as Mexico’s second-biggest drug cartel. (He’s a numbers guy.) His life is turned upside down not because of a terminal disease, like Walter White’s lung cancer, but because someone’s talking to the feds.
It’s a significant difference. Walter’s white-hot sense of being betrayed by fate in “Breaking Bad” was central to a story that reached toward tragedy and the mythological dimensions of noir fiction. “Ozark” uses Marty’s voice-over musings about hard work and the wages of parenthood to give the appearance of gravitas, but the show’s through line is really just his resourcefulness in the face of gruesome, cartel-style justice. The show isn’t a tragedy — most of the time, it’s a satirical (though quite violent) culture-clash caper with pretensions.
The clash of cultures comes after an episode’s worth of dirty business in Chicago, when Marty uproots his family — wife, teenage daughter, younger son — and moves to Missouri, specifically the vast, serpentine Lake of the Ozarks, to set up a new laundering operation. The city-slicker Byrdes adjust to their new surroundings and interact with local residents — including criminals, both small-time and large-scale — who are Southern Gothic stereotypes to a degree you wouldn’t expect in a prestige Netflix drama.
And while it’s unfair to put the onus on Netflix, the real difference between “Breaking Bad” and “Ozark” feels institutional, or generational. “Breaking Bad” had propulsive, straightforward stories that dragged you from season to season. In “Ozark,” a lot happens, but not much is going on.
Marty and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), hatch and abandon laundering schemes — plowing money into a strip club, a lakeside resort and an evangelical church — in a rat-a-tat fashion that provides lots of plot and supporting characters but isn’t that interesting or convincing. The writers and producers (the show was created by the screenwriter Bill Dubuque, known for “The Accountant”) seem less interested in coherent storytelling than in characters’ pausing to deliver homilies — on the difference between rednecks and hillbillies, say, or the nuances of the social contract when it’s applied by Mexican gangsters or Missouri poppy growers.
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