First, the good news – Ozark (new and now streaming on Netflix) is an entertaining, energetic thriller and very binge-worthy. It's all twists and turns, high tension and is anchored in the fraught situation of a seemingly bland Chicago financial adviser who has broken bad – he's laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel.
The guy, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), is your white-collar anti-hero driven to crime because he lives a soulless existence. He has a seemingly supportive but slightly bored wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), two kids who are silent or bicker and he has a porn habit that just might be getting out of hand. A run-in with very angry and very violent cartel guys leads to him moving the family to Lake of the Ozarks, a resort area in the middle of Missouri. There, in this visually stunning but still backwoods location, Marty's task is to launder a lot more money, very quietly.
What unfolds is a rapid-paced, often gruesomely violent and propulsive drama. Once in Missouri, the twisting and turning never lets up. Marty is a smooth talker. Part of the show's DNA is his ability to spin get-rich gibberish into life-saving escape plans. The pressure on Marty is severe and when he gets mixed up with a family of local petty thieves who have ambitions, he is up to his eyeballs in dangerous deceit. Meanwhile, there's a morosely dogged FBI investigator who knows that Marty didn't disappear to the Ozarks to spend more time with his family.
The setting in Missouri is dramatically compelling too, an essential element of the series. Created in the 1920s, Lake of the Ozarks is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world and built to provide hydro-electric power. It became a major tourist attraction and most of the homes there are holiday retreats. At the same time, the locals are farmers and small-town Americans steeped in the traditions of the mountains. It is the perfect, disorienting playground for all manner of criminal activity.
What Marty descends into is a kind of hell for an urban sophisticate. Either people see through him and his schemes, or are reluctant to grasp the depth of his dangerous cunning. The only one who intuits his dark scheming is Ruth, eldest daughter of that local crime family. After Marty, she's the most crucial character and played with aplomb by Julia Garner, who was Kimmy, the sexually aggressive teenager on one of the creepiest seasons of The Americans.There is a lot of grimly perverse drama in Ozark and to some viewers, it is an addictive, upscale crime drama, rife with longings, frustrations, fears, grief and guilt. And thrills. Hey, I enjoyed it.
Now, the caveat. As with a lot of Netflix's recent original programming, Ozark (created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams) feels more like an elaborate concoction than a true creation. For all its propulsion, there's a whiff of the derivative in much of it. Netflix relies on data to figure out what to finance and make and Ozark reeks of data-collection – customers loved Breaking Bad, so here's another drama that imitates so many elements of that modern classic. The anti-hero dad going down and down into a dangerous crime world. There is a lot of entertainment in Ozark, but the feel of it is, at bottom, phony. It does not have the depth and authenticity of drama that grew organically from one writer's vision. It just doesn't.
One can see why Jason Bateman wanted in – he's a comic actor and gets to immerse himself in terrible darkness here while his comedy skills are useful in portraying Marty's desperate-salesman act. (He also directs many episodes.) One can see why Laura Linney wanted to play the complicated, emotionally damaged wife too. There's some meat in that role. Yet, once the drama gets rolling, so much that Linney's character spouts seems lifted from another, superior drama about an even more complicated woman.
The upshot is this – Ozark is fine summer binge-viewing. It's great summer noir that seems to have depth, but doesn't. And, ultimately, it feels robotic because data-driven Netflix still isn't HBO or Showtime, not by a long shot.