It doesn’t get any grimmer than Netflix’s “Ozark” (premiered Friday, July 21), one of those suspense dramas that you want to stop watching, but can’t. Read that as an endorsement if you like (“Can’t stop watching!!!” –The Washington Post), but note the side effects that come with it, mainly stress fatigue. It’s as if the creators raided television’s medicine cabinet and made off with all the amphetamines meant for a year’s worth of other crime shows.
Jason Bateman, known lately as the even-mannered family man in comedies that tend to star “Saturday Night Live” alum and their pals, branches out here as Marty Byrde, an even-mannered family man and financial planner in Chicago — a no-nonsense numbers guy who is in way over his head with a violent Mexican drug cartel, whose money has been quietly laundered for some years by Marty’s firm.
Mere minutes into the pilot episode, some characters you were expecting to stick around for a while have taken bullets point-blank to their heads. The cartel is missing $8 million and has sent a high-ranking taskmaster, Camino Del Rio (Esai Morales), to Chicago to kill Marty and his associates.
Pleading for his life, Marty proposes a new idea: He’ll move to the Lake of the Ozarks, a vast and idyllic reservoir in the hills west of St. Louis, where a seasonal influx of tourist cash will make it easy to launder bigger piles of the cartel’s surplus money.
In a panic — and already preoccupied with the discovery that his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), has been having an affair — Marty races home and tells his family that they’re moving to Missouri. Wendy is resistant and their two teenagers pitch a fit (yes, it’s more of peak TV’s fiercely disobedient adolescents), but the fear in Marty’s eyes is too real to be ignored.
The Byrdes arrive like alien visitors to the Lake of the Ozarks, a collection of towns, resorts and recreational areas jokingly known by locals and tourists as a “Redneck Riviera.”
“Ozark” teems with the sort of authentic details you’d only get through research, but even with its attention to atmospherics, the show is clumsy with its sense of place. The lake, created in 1931 with the construction of a dam on the Osage River, includes more than 1,000 miles of privately owned shoreline, offering a getaway for both the rich and the not-so-rich.
“Ozark’s” co-creator, Bill Dubuque, is from St. Louis and kept a cabin on the lake for many years; based on the tone of the show, he and his colleagues intentionally see the lake and its communities through a much darker lens than the average vacationer. (Midwesterners who know anything about the Lake of the Ozarks will be surprised to discover that more than half the episodes go by before we get a glimpse of its infamous “party cove.”)
The people who live around the lake are seen as backward, racist, homophobic and intelligent only in the criminal sense — all of which could very well be truthy, but not entirely fair. The lake’s vistas and lush surroundings make for beautiful aerial footage between scenes, but I hope the local tourism office wasn’t banking on “Ozark” to be a boon for business. After watching the show, it seems like the last place you’d want to visit.
The Byrdes certainly aren’t enjoying it. Among their first bad encounters are the Langmores, a lawless bunch who live in a few trailers by the water.
To these difficulties, include an FBI agent (Jason Butler Harner) who, long on the trail of Del Rio’s cartel, has followed the Byrdes to the lake.
“Ozark” is simply too busy to contextualize its story and surroundings. Having swum out too far in its own murky waters, the show frantically kicks and flails its way to an open-ended conclusion that doesn’t quite feel like it was worth all the trouble.
Where to watch
Stream “Ozark” on Netflix.