It would be fawning to talk about Breaking Bad having a legacy only two years after it ended, but it affects what we are watching today. BB’s popularity blew up with a certain pipebomb and after pulling in 10million people for its series finale the audience were left bloodthirsty, and hungry for more drugs and money. The race was on; the first studio to put out a show about drug kingpins and Mexicana violence would get to hoover up all those baying viewers.
Here’s how to make a series that fills that niche. Take 15 years of history that has been marinated in blood and cut it into 10 hours. Take care to pull out any deeper detail, then stuff it with sex scenes – four or five per serving will do. Stab it with violence and roll in cocaine. Leave to simmer in a Spanish-speaking country, turning the heat up and down every 10 minutes. Add lashings of mustachioed all-American voiceover work for that homegrown flavour. Serve on a bed of money. Serves 10 million.
And so we have Narcos, a stylish and bloody history lesson that avoids complexities and drama and just serves double-helpings of that savage cartel action everyone is after. Settle in for the true story of Pablo Escobar, the Columbian crime lord responsible for making cocaine such a big deal but still not well known enough by people in the 21st century to spoil the series. The show is grounded in facts and real people, but make no mistake; this show would not exist if not for BB. It has been made to keep a grip on the viewers still riding that wave of methylamine; a Netflix exclusive about a drugs empire built on the sins and aspirations of one man? And it’s based on a true story this time? Thanks, this is just what I needed to tide me over while Better Call Saul gets it act together, I haven’t seen anybody get killed on that yet.
So, Narcos borrows its more action-packed themes from Breaking Bad. No harm there. I just wish Netflix didn’t have to distill their most popular show just to keep people watching. Narcos takes the hottest story on television from the past ten years, boils it down and produces itself in crystalized form, a hit of savagery and hot grit straight to the brain. It was advertised as “your next Breaking Bad,” with more sex, more death, colder characters, crueler mooks and enough drugs and cash to fill a hundred lonely desert graves. $6million? Spare change, here. Two episodes of Narcos is enough to overdose for one sitting. Binge at your own risk.
This trend continues in every aspect. Breaking Bad featured Mexican cartels, so more than half of every episode is in Spanish to make the clunky and exposition-heavy chat spicier. There is no time for talking though, and violence solves most problems in Narcos. Watch it on mute – better yet, turn the subtitles off. You can still tell who’s winning based on who is on the biggest killing spree. Conversations are made of bullet-point sentences that discuss who bites the dust next. Only five minutes are spared in the opening of the second episode to show how this real-life empire’s smuggling operation worked, but this is rushed through so Escobar’s greasiest henchman can shoot a dog. There is a fifteen year career to cover in only ten hours, so the smart and satisfying lab-work that held up Walt’s empire are not dwelled on for Escobar’s cocaine operation. Skip the know-hows and the detail; there are still people to kill.
Narcos’ advertising team isn’t the only one using Heisenberg’s lost kingdom as bait. Over on the Hollywood track, Sicario (already reviewed in this section) shows us one ill-informed recruit’s struggle to work in the climate of paranoia and mistrust surrounding the efforts to shut down a drug operation on the U.S.-Mexico border (in Texas this time, not New Mexico). 4od advertised it as another whirlwind bulletstorm, one team versus the dangerous shadowy crime lord, with enough funny-flour and money to fill that hole in your heart.
These stories are nothing new, but their studios are not giving them a chance to stand on their own merits and must dangle a bag of blue meth to hook viewers. Have some faith, chaps; content aside, the directing in Narcos, while efficient, is top-notch work, and Escobar was a shark of a man with such a stunning career that he should outshine any fictional drug emperors. BBC Live5’s Mark Kermode even dropped the magic O-word while reviewing Sicario. They are electric stories in their own right; don’t cut them with methamphetamines just to pull in a spare fanbase going cold turkey.