In Amazon Prime’s new limited series “ZeroZeroZero,” a family-owned, New Orleans-based shipping company becomes the broker for a large drug deal between a Mexican cartel and Calabria-based Italian crime elements. As the drugs make their way across the Atlantic in one of the company’s ships, events force a stop in Senegal and an overland trek to Morocco before reaching their final destination.
Five countries, three continents, numerous locations and 10,000 extras: “ZeroZeroZero” is nothing if not ambitious. It is also the latest example of what could be termed the border-crossing/international organized crime drama, a genre typified by such shows as Netflix’s “Narcos,” “Narcos: Mexico” and “El Chapo”; USA’s “Queen of the South”; Sundance TV’s “Gomorrah” and “The Last Panthers”; and AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” and “McMafia.”
“I think these shows are a continuation of a genre that’s been popular for a very long time,” says Dailyn Rodriguez, executive producer and showrunner on “Queen of the South,” which stars Alice Braga as Teresa Mendoza, a poor Mexican woman who is forced to flee to the U.S. after her drug-dealing boyfriend is murdered. The series’ fifth season is slated to air later this year.
“There have been Irish mob shows, Italian mob shows. It’s a fascination with things like ‘The Godfather,’” says Rodriguez. “These shows are a continuation of that. These stories are familiar. A lot of times they are about people who come out of poor circumstances, and a lot of times they have a family element to them, and that’s relatable to a lot of people.”
“It’s a different way to talk about human beings,” says Stefano Sollima, an executive producer and co-director of “ZeroZeroZero,” who has also directed episodes of “Gomorrah.” “It’s a treatise on the desire for power, and trying to get at the extreme competition we have in the world, and its effect on the local economy. It’s not just because it’s a genre. People like to watch something that’s different from their lives.”
Though crime stories have been a staple of movies and TV since their very beginnings, they have not traversed the geographical divides, many involving the drug trade, of these new series. Although quite a few of these shows deal with U.S.-Mexico and/or Latin America connections, others range farther afield: “Undercover,” on Netflix, involves infiltrating a drug kingpin’s operation on the Dutch-Belgian border. “Girl/Haji,” also on Netflix, features a Tokyo detective traveling to London to find his brother, who has been accused of murdering the nephew of a yakuza member. “The Last Panthers,” shot in four European countries, deals with conspiracies involving bankers, drug traffickers and war criminals; and “McMafia,” filmed in locations including Belgrade, Tel Aviv and Belize, features the British-raised son of a Russian Mafia boss.
Beyond this border hopping, there are other ways these shows differ from traditional epics like “The Godfather” trilogy, according to Sollima, who also directed the cross-border feature “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”
“Nowadays, to make ‘The Godfather,’ it’s not related to our lives. It’s not contemporary,” he says. “‘The Godfather’ is an homage to the old Mafia. We are now talking about something that is real in your life; these shows show something that is actual. It’s not just a story of gangsters, it’s a story of crimes that affect your life.”
“A lot of these shows are about people at the bottom of the social classes who feel themselves empowered by this organized crime,” adds “Queen of the South” co-showrunner and executive producer Benjamin Daniel Lobato. “So these types of shows attract the same audience, often times diverse, often times urban. From a programming perspective, USA is getting the benefit of an audience tuning in to watch ‘Mr. Robot.’ It’s young and urban.”
With this ripped-from-the-headlines emphasis comes a commitment to high-end production values. “ZeroZeroZero,” which was based on the novel of the same name by “Gomorrah” writer Roberto Saviano, took nearly six months to shoot and involved more than 1,000 crew members. “The challenge was to make a show based on reality,” says Sollima. “We were a big crew, like a big movie, and it was a challenge to put everything together, not only logistically, but to find the money and the resources to do it.”
Lobato says the challenges for his show involve characterization and meshing criminal and non-criminal elements. “Queen of the South” can be tricky, he says, “because it’s a hybrid show. It’s sometimes difficult to find a balance between action, crime and other aspects. I’ve never seen a character on TV like Teresa Mendoza, and I think people feel empowered by her. This is a show about a survivor — of violence, of poverty.”
And, adds Rodriguez, the ability to avoid stereotyping characters — think Al Pacino’s wildly over-the-top, stereotypical performance in “Scarface” — is of prime importance. “As writers, we don’t really look at ‘How do we avoid the stereotypes?’ It’s ‘How do we write a three-dimensional character?” she says. “If you write that, you avoid stereotype.”
The cross-border crime drama is also plugging into a relatively recent TV phenomenon, the extensive use of original languages with English subtitles. Although foreign-language films have been shown in the U.S. market for decades, it’s become more common on TV just since 2010, when the Sundance Channel acquired the French-German miniseries “Carlos,” about the notorious 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Since then, subtitled dramas have become more and more prevalent on TV and streaming services, not only attesting to the growing sophistication of viewers, but also the international sales potential of such works.
“I think audiences have always been sophisticated,” says Sollima. “Now it’s more acceptable to watch movies in the original language. You have access to lots of dramas; we’re finally at a point where we have access to a lot of global shows, which can become a phenomenon in the entire world.”
But no matter what language these programs are in, Lobato sees their popularity in a commonality that makes them universal, a commonality that has been essential to the crime drama since the 1930s era of films like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.”
“These shows all have working-class people trying to make it in a system with institutionalized corruption and racism,” he says. “The aspects of power are similar also. They are about people who move up through the ranks.”
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)