Narcos, Netflix’s new drug-war docudrama, is nearly as ambitious as its central character, Pablo Escobar. Over the course of 10 dense, sprawling episodes, the series tells the 20-year history of the narcotrafficker's rise and fall in relation to Colombia’s blood-soaked history and the U.S.’s escalating drug war, from Richard Nixon through George H.W. Bush. If that sounds a bit dry, that’s because Narcos can be too. But don’t forget, The Wire made a whole lot of us improbably care about the intricacies of Baltimore’s municipal jurisprudence by showing us the human cost of bad policy.
Unfortunately, humanity is what’s most lacking in this admirable but failed imitation of David Simon’s classic series. Creators Chris Brancato, Eric Newman and Carlo Bernard gave themselves the task of adapting Escobar for faux-prestige TV. The gangster-turned-mass terrorist’s worst exploits, like the assassinations of over a thousand cops and the grotesque mutilations of his victims, are only mentioned or seen in passing, while Escobar’s penchant for 14-year-old girls and orders for the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of his enemies to be raped in public are elided completely — quite possibly because we spend half the show with Escobar, and he would be irredeemably, intolerably evil as a character if we were confronted with the whole truth about him.
Played by Brazilian superstar Wagner Moura (speaking Spanish), this Escobar is most compelling when he’s simply watching others, looking right through them while coldly deciding their fates. When he first appears on screen, he announces to a group of border patrolmen that he’s “Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria,” the future “president of the Republic of Colombia.” (He’ll say as many words as he damn pleases; it’s not like anyone would dare interrupt him.) To the half-dozen officers who’ve detained him, Escobar offers them an easy choice: plata o plomo, silver (in their hands) or lead (in their heads). With doughy menace, he informs the uniformed men that this deal involves not just themselves, but their wives and children too, all of whom Escobar knows by name, occupation, and route to work or school.
Reuniting with his Elite Squad director José Padilha, Moura, in certain scenes, is as difficult to look away from as a coiled snake. And yet the actor never finds the character’s core. Based on his introduction, Escobar seems to view himself as a businessman foremost, but that doesn’t explain his desire to be viewed as a Robin Hood to the miserable masses (an image the real-life Escobar hired PR professionals to create), nor his oft-noted bitterness toward the elegant, educated, and lighter-skinned oligarchy that the drug lord challenged, then terrorized via bombings, kidnappings, and, on one occasion, a plane explosion (with 110 passengers on board).
Escobar's relationships are detailed so vaguely that when the narco-lord tears up while listening to the funeral of a close associate through a walkie-talkie, it’s only afterward that we learn via voiceover that the dead man was Escobar’s best friend. Available in its entirety on August 28, this first season has so much story to tell — and so many fascinating details to cram in — that it turns Escobar into a timeline: he did this in '79, then that in '84, then this other thing soon after, then that other thing after that.
That dutifully chronological approach informs the rest of the bilingual (and subtitled) show, which is bifurcated between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and the two DEA agents who bend more and more rules to bring the narcos to justice with unreliable help from their bosses, the CIA and the Colombian military and presidency. The law-enforcement pair are so flat and flimsy they might as well be called Officer Monogamy (Boyd Holbrook) and Officer Man-Slut (Pedro Pascal, a/k/a Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones ). Their wheeling and dealing with various parties eventually gets too convoluted to follow, though Pascal brings an irresistible winking charm to his playboy with a heart of gold.
Holbrook walks the walk, but he can’t talk the talk. Which ultimately makes Narcos a bloody and largely humorless slog to get through, since so much of the narrative relies on his incessant, can-you-believe-this-shit voice-over, which veers between obvious statements (“in this war, it was the innocent who always seemed to get hurt”) and two-bit noir (“he was slimy as a hagfish, with none of the charm”). (It also imposes an unnecessary Anglo framing over the story.) A great many montage scenes simply illustrate what the voice-over states, and while watching a cadaver loaded into a Burger King truck by police offers some surreality (the tens of thousands of deaths from the Colombian drug war overloaded the morgue’s fleets so completely that police rented fast-food vehicles to remove bodies from the streets), the overall tone of the show often feels too instructive, as if the showrunners are trying to accommodate both aural and visual learners.
Intercut with the action is actual news footage of Escobar and the bodies he left in his wake, which contributes to the occasional documentary-like tenor of the show. There’s plenty of drama, too — each episode contains at least a couple of white-knuckled moments of suspense — and gratuitous sex scenes, including one in the third episode in which Escobar gets his mistress off by rubbing his revolver between her legs. (Ew.) But the highlights of each hour are the repasts of historical detail: Escobar’s golden toilet, his 800 properties, the reveal of his real enemy (Forbes' naming of Escobar the seventh-richest man in the world invited greater scrutiny from the U.S. and Colombian governments). Later, when he turns himself in to the authorities on the condition that he’ll build his own prison and populate it with hand-picked fellow inmates, the facilities contain a soccer field, a bar with a Jacuzzi, a cache of weapons nearby (seriously) and his family residing down the hill, so he can spy on them with a telescope anytime he chooses.
There’s some dark, entrepreneurial entertainment to be had in the first few episodes, which detail Escobar’s increasing brazenness as his Medellín cartel grows into a global empire: running for Congress while his henchmen hand out pesos after his stump speeches (he wins that election), assassinating leading presidential candidates who promise to fight the narcos and butchering nearly half the Colombian Supreme Court to evade justice. Many of these events are heavily documented and have been told and retold, but the show exists to illustrate Escobar’s genius for getting ahead of the law, especially through strategic alliances with other drug lords, like José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, a/k/a "El Mexicano."
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But the show’s focus returns once and again to how America’s war on drugs — which the writers attribute not to concern about chemical abuse, but dismay at how much U.S. currency was flowing into Latin America — ironically led to the rise of the profitable, vicious narco cartels.
After U.S. agencies achieved a measure of success in Colombia (and later in Mexico), traffickers simply moved to Central America, inadvertently creating the ongoing refugee crisis of children fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras which came to a head only last summer. That makes Narcos' recounting of Escobar's life not quite timely, but certainly history that’s urgent and necessary — with a dash of heroism to make the medicine go down.
Unfortunately, the show never shakes its off-brand genericness or the lingering aftertaste of pedagogy. It might aim for a similar effect as The Wire, but it feels a lot rougher going down.
Premieres August 28 on Netflix
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television.