Review: Jason Bateman and Laura Linney make corruption likable in the intriguing new Netflix series ‘Ozark’
Jason Bateman, America’s sweetheart, is the star, an executive producer and the director of nearly half the episodes of “Ozark,” a series premiering in its 10-episode first-season entirety Friday on Netflix.
Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago financial advisor. He is, we are given to understand, cautious, boring and, for the moment, obsessively distracted by a snippet of what looks like amateur pornography. He drives a 10-year-old Camry, “with cloth seats,” while his more flamboyant business partner Bruce (Josh Randall) lives it up around town. For a while, you might think you are embarking on a rather dreary, and drearily familiar, drama of domestic breakdown, one of those things where soul death is represented by watching the History channel and Anderson Cooper, shopping at Costco and recycling. And by dinner-table scenes in which family members — wife Wendy (Laura Linney, another of America’s sweethearts), 15-year-old daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and 12-year-old son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) — can barely sustain a conversation.
And, in part, you are embarking on that drama. But slowly the the story you thought you were watching turns into something different. Back story is coming, eventually, for even more sympathetic tragic context, but not until Episode 8.
One thing we learn, before long, is that he’s laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel and that his partner has been secretly taking a little of that lettuce home for himself. This prompts the arrival of upper-middle-management crime figure Del (Esai Morales) and the drama proper.
One thing leads to a horrible another, and in a moment of improvisation — Marty talking his way out of potentially deadly tight spots is something of a motif here — based on a travel brochure crumpled on the floor, he persuades Del not to kill him but instead send him down to the Lake of Ozarks. Marty paints “the redneck Riviera” as a potential criminal paradise, far from the much-seeing eye of the feds.
The obvious question is whether the hardship, danger and enforced close quarters that follow — the Byrdes are hemmed in by crooks on one side and cops on the other — will bring the family closer together, soften their hearts, strengthen their bonds and renew their vows. I will not tell you whether the obvious answer is the one that has been chosen here.
Another, more central question, which viewers will answer for themselves, is whether the fate of these characters matters in a more than academic way, whether one actually cares whether they make it out alive. (For most of “Ozark,” I did not, which is not to say I was uninterested.) The series takes pains to point out that Marty is complicit in other people’s real-world suffering, not to mention the suffering under his own roof; Wendy has plenty to answer for too. But some people prefer their heroes “anti”; acres of New Golden Age television have been dedicated to that preference.
At the same time, “Ozark” treats him as basically a good guy — as Jason Bateman! Both he and Linney are highly likable actors whose earlier roles we fold into the present one. Indeed, A bit of Michael Bluth from “Arrested Development” happily makes itself felt in Bateman’s delivery now and again, as when he assails a team of movers who have left his furniture in the yard. “I want you to tell me one example of someone who said, ‘We want you to take everything that we own and dump it on our front lawn just make sure you don’t put anything on the inside of the house.’”
And though you can’t quite call them good parents, the Byrdes love their children, for what that’s worth — and it’s always worth something in TV shows — even if they do not seem so at first. (Everyone is in a bad mood to begin with.) And they are not the worst people we will meet, by a long shot.
But the show comes fully alive in the company of its secondary characters, particularly an extended family of petty criminals — the press materials call them “ruffians,” quaintly — who fall athwart of more serious sorts; as their teenage de facto matriarch, Julia Garner is especially good, and her story line is arguably the most engrossing that “Ozark” has to offer. Pay attention too to Jordana Spiro as the owner of a waterfront bar-cafe Marty invests in and Harris Yulin as the unhurriedly dying old man who comes with the house the Byrdes buy.
Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams (both of whom worked on “The Accountant”), “Ozark” does most things right. Not every plot point feels completely plausible, but the show looks good and plays well; the writing is crisp and not too colorful; the performances are unforced and believable. Although the series was filmed not in Missouri but in Georgia and may offend a local’s sense of detail, Steak ‘n Shake reference nothwithstanding, its world feels natural and not cinematic. I would call for a moratorium on using low-frequency sounds to create tension, a strategy used throughout the series, but it is a common sin nowadays, and we will say no more about it.
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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