Arguably the best Netflix series, if something of a sleeper, is Ozark, a tense drama/thriller about a Chicago family who abruptly up sticks and move to the backwaters of America. They’re on a mission to money launder; Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) realises too late that his business partner has some strong underworld connections, and is lucky to escape the resultant bloodbath with his life. Byrde has also just discovered video evidence of infidelity by his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), and their family unit is in danger of fragmenting. But Marty successfully begs for a chance at survival, moving to the Ozarks and aiming to launder money from a Mexican drug cartel.
With bin-bags crammed with banknotes, this covert operation is no easy task; buying a house, a share in local businesses, strip clubs and funeral parlours is not enough, and by series two, the Byrde family are getting involved in the casino trade and local politics. Their two children are initially oblivious, but as interactions with the locals grow more extreme, the Byrde family struggle to maintain a normal demeanour as the bodies pile up around them.
Ozark is an absorbing crime-thriller with a great angle; the Byrde family are normal people, faced with an extraordinary situation; how to get millions into the local economic system without giving themselves away. The same situation could easily be exploited for comedic purposes, as with Bateman’s Arrested Development, but Ozark is deadly serious, even if there are blackly comic twists along the way.
The huge plus here is the acting; Bateman and Linney are both terrific performers, and their portrait of a husband and wife way beyond the end of their tether is utterly compelling. Julia Garner is equally hypnotic as the opportunistic Ruth Langmore, who takes full advantage of the Byrde’s situation, and Janet McTeer plays brilliantly against type as the ice-cold and deadly lawyer Helen who represents the interests of the drug cartel.
Batemen has indicated that Ozark’s story is soon to be brought to a close, and that’s probably for the best. While there have alwasy been lapses into clichés (bogus religious services on riverboats with heroin delivered inside bibles), the Lord and Lady Macbeth angle gets repetitious by series three as the endless line of new characters introduced only to be rapidly killed off stretches credulity. And the mental health angle in series three, introduced via Wendy’s brother, isn’t a great look for the show; he’s yet another firecracker waiting to unleash violence when off his meds, a rote character in a creative series that doesn’t need to fall back on such negative stereotypes.
Such faults aside, Ozark is one of the best examples of a streaming show, and anyone who hasn’t caught it yet is in for a treat. Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, it’s an adult, intense show that aims for a societal fault line where crime and community intersect on Main Street. A great final season will make Ozark a show for the ages, if they can get the formula back on track.