Jason Bateman is a smarmy guy. He was smarmy on Arrested Development, he was smarmy in Horrible Bosses, he was even smarmy in last year’s Zootopia. Perhaps that’s what makes him so good as Marty Byrde in Ozark, his smarmiest character yet.
Beneath the charming sarcasm of Bateman’s exterior, there’s always been a hint of malice. This makes him the perfect lead for Netflix’s latest attempt at prestige drama. Financial adviser Marty Byrde flees Chicago with his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and their two children for Lake of the Ozarks, where he is tasked with laundering $8 million for a Mexican drug cartel in the show’s pilot. Marty is in over his head almost as soon as Ozark begins, and he struggles to keep from drowning throughout the 10-episode season. As is always the case with this kind of show, that’s the sick fun of it. A good thriller doesn’t work if you’re not frequently reminded that the main character’s life is in jeopardy.
Thrillers seem to be a specialty of Ozark writer Bill Dubuque’s, who co-created the show with producer Mark Williams. Dubuque also penned last year’s Ben Affleck vehicle, The Accountant, in addition to family dramas like 2014’s The Judge and this year’s A Family Man. Based on this track record, it’s safe to say that Dubuque’s other speciality is the family drama. Thankfully, Ozark falls under the other part of his skill set, and while the family storylines on the show are interesting enough, the series is best when it allows itself to be the dark, nasty little thriller that it wants to be.
The first episode is simply full of great writing. Imagine Breaking Bad if Breaking Bad was already two seasons in, and Walter White had been cooking meth for awhile now. That’s Marty Byrd when we first meet him, except we don’t know it. For the first third of the pilot, Marty seems to be just another dissatisfied, middle-aged businessman, striving to expand his client base while coming to terms with his wife’s infidelity. Dubuque does an excellent job of setting up who Marty is before we get a clear picture of what he does. Then, once the drug world element of the show kicks in, the rest of the episode is heavy and fast. Marty uproots his wife and kids, blowing up his whole life in order to save it.
Ozark does conjure up comparisons to several other shows. It’s hard not to look at it in the same vein as Netflix’s recently canceled Bloodline, another crime/family drama which leaned heavily on a unique setting. Elements of Animal Kingdom, Top of the Lake, Justified, and Sons of Anarchy feel present as well. Does Ozark bring anything special to this genre? Is it well-executed enough to forgive any similarities to its predecessors? The answers are “somewhat” and “yes.”
There have been countless shows over roughly the past two decades about straight, white, and male antiheroes. Breaking Bad may be the jump-off comparison for Ozark, but as the list above attests, it’s not its only predecessor. But what Ozark lacks in originality it makes up for in self-assurance. There are enough exhilarating moments here to keep the viewer hooked from one episode to the next, despite certain plotlines feeling familiar.
The real draw, however, is Bateman. Like Walter White, Marty is not a criminal by nature, so much as a person whose nature allows him to be a good criminal. While Walter White was a brilliant scientist, obsessed with the chemistry that went into making his product perfect, Marty is a business-minded capitalist. He’s the kind of rich white man who never flaunts his money, scrimping and saving, taking advantage of every tax loophole, and lecturing his kids on the value of a dollar while letting millions go untouched in the bank. This makes him a natural when it comes to finding the cleanest, most-efficient solution to hiding money for the cartel. Like all capitalists, Marty is a survivor, capable of weaseling his way out of most anything, as he demonstrates in the pilot. He loves his family, and can make the argument that he’s “doing it all for them.” But it’s his own desire for more that got him into this mess.
Bateman plays these conflicting instincts with utter precision. While he’s primarily thought of as a comedic actor, it’s his ability to turn a sympathetic, disarming everyman quality into calculating ruthlessness that makes him so enthralling to watch. In films like The Gift, Juno, or his feature directorial debut Bad Words, he’s been at different times sneering, venomous, and deceitful. In fact in his most iconic role, as Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, he’s remarkably vindictive, only becoming the good guy because everyone around him is acting so badly. He brings all these negative qualities to Marty Byrd, and somehow still manages to make us root for him, even through all the smarm.
Linney doesn’t receive as many chances to shine as Bateman, and the show is worse for it. Although they are basically co-leads, Wendy too often falls into the trope of the “scolding wife” character. Anna Gunn broke through this stereotype on Breaking Bad, and after five seasons, fans were still awful to her. Since we come to the story already in motion, Linney’s character has the advantage of knowing about Marty’s misdeeds from the get-go, and in some ways, being complicit in them. This brings an intriguing layer to Wendy, but sadly, Ozark never fully explores it.
One hopes that we get more insight into her if the show gets a second season. There are scenes between Marty, Wendy, and their children (played by Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner) which work, although these are rarely the more interesting parts of the show. But Linney is wasted, and this is Ozark’s biggest flaw.
Other notable performers include Julia Garner, as the scrappy brains in a family of small-time thieves, and Scottish actor Peter Mullan (doing an excellent southern accent,) as a local crime boss, both of whom show up to complicate things for Marty. On the other side of the law but making his life no less difficult is an FBI agent played by Jason Butler Harner, who infiltrates the Ozark community in order to catch Marty in the act. Harner’s character, an eccentric, sometimes bizarre lawman, is another type that’s been done more successfully on other shows, most notably with Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire.
Ozark has the same look as shows like House of Cards, sleek and digital. More credit goes to Bateman here, as he directed the first two installments, and deftly helps set the tone for the series. The show’s most interesting choice in technique is the replacement of a title sequence with a pictograph of the letter “O” at the beginning of each episode. Within every letter, there are four smaller images, each a clue as to what lies ahead.
Ozark does not redefine the wheel when it comes to gritty prestige dramas, but it knows what it is, and it moves steadily through its first 10 episodes.