There isn’t a lot of country noir on TV. Justified may not quite be country noir, but it is more than close enough for a show that good. I haven’t seen it, but Hap & Leonard probably qualifies (the first book certainly does). But Netflix has recently expanded our country noir options with its new show Ozark.
Ozark is a show about a money launderer who gets in way too deep, a show about trying to muscle into new territory, and, er, a show about family. It is very dark, and very good.
Jason Bateman is Marty Byrde, a financial advisor who launders the ill-gotten gains of a Mexican Cartel. When his partner gets caught skimming, Marty hatches a scheme to save himself improvising his partners dreams of Lake of the Ozarks. They will use the cash-heavy businesses relying on tourists to launder money far away from the prying eyes in Chicago. He is given a short deadline to prove himself with a lot of money.
It’s fitting that we’re finally getting a major show about money laundering. If you ever want to use your drug money for anything past “gas and groceries,” you are going to have to clean it, because you need a way to explain where you got it if the IRS comes calling. Money laundering is also much more difficult and important after the Patriot Act tightened up bank reporting rules.
The Ozark writers are ballsy to throw their main character all the way into the deep end in the pilot. But Marty is a great protagonist. He isn’t going to kick anybody’s ass, but he is extraordinarily smart (something the writers show, not tell, us) and he is always—always—thinking out all the angles. It’s enormously entertaining to watch him desperately tread water, talking himself out of one deadly situation after another (although at times it strains credulity).
Ozark has an appropriately country noir setting, the titular Ozarks, specifically the Lake of the Ozarks. The Lake of the Ozarks is a massive man-made reservoir with a shoreline longer than the coast of California, full of hidden coves. It is a major tourist destination—it is the businesses relying on those tourist dollars that Marty has his eyes on.
But of course the Lake of the Ozarks already has its own criminal element, same as anyplace else. Marty in short order runs into the Redneck, a strip club owner who immediately knows it is money laundering he is interested in, the White Trash, a clan a two-bit criminals who learn just how much cash he arrived with, and the Hillbilly, the local kingpin, who runs his criminal enterprise with his wife from their farmhouse, poppy out back, while they brood over the land the lake took from their people (the hills of our country used to be more broadly settled, before people back east decided they would be better as reservoirs and national forests; Ron Rash has used this for grist in his novels One Foot in Eden and Serena).
One small but enormously effective gimmick used by Ozark is an “O” containing four symbols briefly displayed at the end of the opening credits. I watched Ozark with my wife, and we had great fun pausing the show to identify the symbols, then shouting them out as we spotted each during the show.
Both Del, the Cartel contact, and Jacob Snell, the Hillbilly are scarily effective big bads. Roy Petty, an FBI agent who follows Marty to the Ozarks, is less effective. The gay FBI agent leans on tired tropes at this point. Worse, he never feels like a threat to Marty remotely on the level of the Cartel or the Hillbilly.
Ozark frequently feels like an answer to Breaking Bad. There is a mild-mannered protagonist, but where Walter White started as a straight-and-narrow high school chemistry teacher who broke bad, Marty Byrde is introduced as a seemingly straight-and-narrow financial advisor who we quickly learn has been in bed with the Cartel for a long time. Money laundering played a small role in Breaking Bad; it takes center stage here. Breaking Bad was about meth, the drug du jour of the 2000s; Ozark is about heroin, the drug du jour (again) of the 2010s. Walter White started down his dark path without his family, although his wife eventually learns of it; Marty Byrde’s wife always knew, and his family finds out almost as soon as the show starts.
Netflix will release Ozark season 2 on August 31st, 2018.
4 of 5 Stars.
Follow Hillbilly Highways on Facebook.