Review

Netflix's 'Narcos' plays up Pablo Escobar's menace and magnetism

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Into a cultural moment already roiling with political theater, border issues and gun violence drops "Narcos," a new series from Netflix that chronicles the rise of Pablo Escobar, whose ruthless monomania was matched only by his enduring antihero popularity.

Two decades after being shot by the Colombian National Police, the man who fueled cocaine use in the U.S. and founded the Medellin cartel, who had officials and agents assassinated and thousands of Colombians slaughtered, remains larger than life, the subject of countless articles, books and films. In Medellin, tourists go on guided Pablo tours.

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For the record, 5:45 p.m. Aug. 27, 2015: An earlier version of this post said that Chris Brancato, Eric Newman and Carlo Bernard are the show creators. The creators are Chris Brancato and Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro. Eric Newman serves as executive producer.

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That addictive combination of brutality, enormous wealth and personal charisma, which fuels so many careers and genres of fiction, is precisely what creators Chris Brancato and Carlo Bernard &  Doug Miro and director Jose Padilha attempt to explore with "Narcos," which begins streaming Friday. It's a grand if inconsistent experiment that, from the moment it opens with a definition of magic realism, wears its considerable ambitions on its sleeve.

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"There's a reason magic realism was invented in Colombia," we are told right off the bat by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), as if to prepare us for evocations of Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende. Instead, we get a gangster tale super-sized by sheer volume (So much coke! So much money! So much violence!), sprinkled with ideology (communism, militarism, liberation theology) and loosely wrapped in the larger context of nostalgia for the '80s and America's war on drugs.

Taking full and admirable advantage of Netflix's signature freedom from traditional narrative convention, the writers and director combine the historical footage of a docudrama with the sub-titled Spanish of an art film, the viciousness of premium cable with the easy-read political analysis of a bestseller.

Not surprisingly, the batter is often lumpy and the flavors clash as often as they complement. Yes, there is humor to be found in a man, played to great effect by Brazilian Wagner Moura, who made so much money he had to hide some in his Mama's sofa, but the rise of the Medellin cartel was not some pop cultural moment like the reign of the Beatles. Though the era's brutality is shown, "Narcos'" attempt to grapple with the power of the mythology often means simply surrendering to it.

The tone of the narrationdoes not help. "Narcos," whose season consists of 10 episodes, tells its story through Murphy, a young idealistic agent who signs up for the war on drugs the way his father signed up for World War II. (The real Murphy and his partner were consultants on the series.) The reality he entered was much more complicated.

In direct homage to "Goodfellas," much of the first hour is devoted to explaining how all this is gonna work. In breezily jaded tones, Murphy dumps us into the middle of the war zone, then pulls us out for a brief cocaine tutorial. Out of the violent Chilean jungle crawls a man with a magical paste. Rejecting two of three smugglers, he picks Escobar, a crook of such menacing charm that even Murphy can't keep the admiration out of his voice as he quickly describes the lowly smuggler's transformation to billionaire drug lord.

And, indeed, Moura, with his soft, brown-eyed gaze and youthful face (much better-looking than the real man), makes Escobar so appealing in his self-confidence that it is difficult not to root for him, even as he subtly threatens the children of an army official who initially dares not to be paid off, even as he poses with corpses, even as he puts a bounty on Murphy's head.

Once we catch up to the Reagan administration, Murphy's voice, heavy on examples of the "stranger than fiction" nature of Columbia, is there to help us up and over important events and complications with a few wry observations. The narration may be necessary, if only to stitch the series' larger message about U.S. incompetence to the main bar of Escobar's astonishing success, but Murphy's sardonic commentary is far more men's magazine than magic realism, turning the historic footage into grabby sidebars and marginalia.

Not surprisingly, "Narcos" is most compelling in the scenes involving Escobar. American film and television have a special place for crime lords and the men who pursue them, which the creators eagerly embrace for both sides of the law. Murphy wrestles with his dependency on his new partner, Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal), whom he sees as far too morally elastic, but slowly goes native as it becomes clear that the rules don't apply in Colombia.

Escobar, meanwhile, is portrayed in classic alpha style as the sort of man who loves and respects his wife even though he cheats on her, who casually issues death warrants but weeps when an animal is brutalized. Only occasionally are we allowed glimpses of anything close to an actual man. To the market-savvy sociopath who fell into a highly lucrative product line at just the right time and, given the institutionalized corruption of the country he lived in, had no qualms about doing whatever it took to sell as much of it as possible.

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'Narcos'

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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