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Why the bad first season of ‘Narcos’ is worth watching

Getting through the season might be worth the side effects.


Joey Keeton


In one of Entourage’s later (that is, bad) seasons, Vincent Chase stars as Pablo Escobar in a movie-within-the-show called Medellin. The production was a wreck, and Chase’s venture into the world of arthouse films ends up going straight to DVD.

While watching the latest big-budget Netflix Original, Narcos, I couldn’t shake the idea that I was watching Medellin. It’s gorgeous, expertly acted filmmaking, but it’s clear—by around the third episode—that the season will never gel into a cohesive narrative, and it won’t really have anything poignant to say by the time the final episode’s credits roll. It’s eight and a half hours of the most expensive, and utterly aimless, dicking around that any large production has ever accomplished.

But here’s why you need to watch it anyway.

The show is based around the partnership of two DEA officers, Steve Murphy and Javier Peña, and their hunt for the Colombian drug lord/Fortune 500 member/philanthropist/most dangerous criminal in the world/brief congressman Pablo Escobar.

It’s eight and a half hours of the most expensive, and utterly aimless, dicking around that any large production has ever accomplished.

Pablo is pretty wealthy at the start of episode 1, but the accumulation of his ridiculous levels of wealth is covered in one of those montages where stacks of money are shown in rooms, and a voiceover says stuff like “A week later, Pablo would be importing 600 million tons of cocaine an hour into Miami,” while Pablo stands next to a Cessna airplane and negotiates with a goofy-looking pilot. It’s an oddly paced show: A great deal of time is given to man who originally brought Pablo the cocaine refinement method, which would later make him rich, but then it hardly shows him actually getting rich at all. Most of the time we see Pablo, he’s casually sauntering around by himself, looking into the sun with puppy-dog eyes that are simultaneously ablaze with ambition and hazed over by a fog of inevitable self-loathing and doom.

Wagner Moura takes a script that gives Pablo very little to do and adds at least six emotional layers to it, solely by the way he moves his eyes. He adds about three more layers by the way he carries his beer-keg belly, and, when all’s said and done, he’s responsible for a several-dozen-layered character that was written with maybe two in mind.

Each episode feels like it was written in total isolation from the others, like the cool parts of Pablo’s rise to infamy were scripted out, laid next to each other, and tied together with only the thinnest strings of plot to connect the pieces. Consequences rarely carry over from one episode to the next, each one dutifully following the formula of “Pablo does something bombastic, and the cops go “damnit, we got nothin to nail this guy with!”—until the very last episode, which would have made a fucking fantastic first episode.

Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal have great chemistry as DEA agents Murphy and Peña; they’re just not given anything to do. Murphy’s main role in the season is to provide the voiceover, which, with a few possible exceptions, could have been lost with no consequence whatsoever.

It’s such a frustrating season: The performances are great, the action (and everything else) is directed extremely well, the presumably expensive Colombian film shoot makes every single frame shot outdoors look stupidly amazing… but there’s just something missing. When I read an interview with the real-life Murphy and Peña, the missing thing was suddenly very clear: It’s a story based on two DEA agents who didn’t actually know each other in real life for 80 percent of this season.

“I was only in Colombia about three days when Escobar surrendered to his custom built prison,” Murphy told the Observer. In the show, that happens in episode 9 (out of 10), with Murphy coming to Colombia in the first episode. This explains a great deal of the dicking-around done by the agents in this season; they really didn’t have anything to do.

But having spent nearly this entire piece badmouthing this season, here’s why it’s worth watching: The second season, which will pick up where the show should have started, is probably going to be fantastic.

This season ends with (spoiler alert) Pablo escaping his personal prison, which the government allowed him to build for himself. Here’s what Murphy told the interviewer from the Observer about what came after his escape, which this season closes with:

“During that 18 month period, there were 143 Colombian National Police Officers killed as a direct result of the manhunt for Escobar…. For those 18 months, Medellin became the murder capital of the world.”

In the same interview, Peña confirms: “In Meddelin, you would have 30-50 people murders every weekend that were all Escobar related.”

In other words, who knows why this season even exists. Maybe, due to there being nothing but extreme violence after Pablo’s escape, Netflix wanted to take a cheaper approach to the first season: Film the more boring, political parts of Pablo’s life to see if this crew could competently produce a show, and then give them the big bucks (and a million squibs) for the next and, logistically, final season.

For all its flaws, Narcos’ first season could just be one hell of a prequel to a mindblowingly good second season. Let’s just hope they have the episodes written in the same ZIP codes this time around.

Screengrab via Netflix

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