This Netflix original series stars Jason Bateman as Chicago-based financial advisor Marty Byrde who also launders money for the Mexican cartel alongside his business partners. But when Marty’s associates are found to be skimming money off the top, Marty quickly promises his employer, Del Rio (Esai Morales), that he can launder 50 million dollars down in the Missouri Ozarks, in order to avoid being executed like the rest of his business partners. Called up on his promise, Marty moves his family down to Missouri to begin setting up businesses in which to launder Del’s money and slowly finds himself surrounded by danger on all sides: from the FBI, from Del’s men, from a small criminal family and from an infamous heroin dealing operation presided over by Jacob Snell (Peter Mullan).
In the main role, Jason Bateman is ideally cast as Marty Byrde; he manages to effectively be both the everyday family man as well as a quick thinking, resourceful money launderer with that special talent of talking/bluffing his way out of dangerous scenarios, even though his silver tongue doesn’t always work. It is great to see Bateman delve further into dramatic roles and his impressively confident performance here is spot on, a fine leading character indeed. Alongside him, Laura Linney is a decent “first lady” and manages to make Wendy Bryde a continually conflicted character, assisting Marty in invaluable ways while also stepping up and laying down the law when required, such as in a great scene that takes place in a funeral home and when she throws the dead animals back at the juvenile Langmore boys. Wendy’s no Skyler White, Carmela Soprano or Betty Draper but she holds her own alongside Marty and Linney is a welcome presence in the series.
Ozark is full of solid supporting performances; Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner are perfectly likeable, never insufferable, as the Bryde kids, Jordana Spiro shares some intriguing sexual chemistry with Jason Bateman in her role as the confident and affable lodge owner Rachel, later on starting to question Marty’s business, Esai Morales is both charismatic and swarthy as well as menacing and intimidating as Marty’s boss Del Rio, and (an American accented!) Peter Mullan and Lisa Emery are appropriately threatening as the heroin dealing Snell family whose operation Marty inadvertently hinders.
And Grandma‘s Julia Garner is quite something as young Ruth Langmore; there are plenty of times when she effectively asserts her dominance over her uncles and cousins and manages to be particularly threatening as she initially makes plans to kill Marty but throughout the series, she definitely becomes much more of an ally to the Byrdes and we see the oppressive hold that her incarcerated father has over her, showing a huge amount of inner turmoil as times get tough for her. Garner makes the role her own and Ruth can be both likeable and supportive as well as delightfully wicked and sly: as Tuck says, she’s pretty. But deadly.
Story-wise, Ozark is fairly original as, although it includes familiar elements such as the Cartel, drug-dealing families and the FBI and whatnot, it takes the crime drama aspect of money laundering, which we’ve most likely seen once or twice before, and explores it further, giving us a show that’s primarily focused on something that we haven’t seen properly examined in such detail before. The central character’s journey is a compelling one as we see him try his hardest to basically set up a whole empire in a short amount of time, occasionally faltering and gradually facing danger from many different fronts. When it gets into the meat of the story, where Marty inadvertently disrupts the Snells’ heroin dealing on the lake, the series definitely kicks into gear and the parts where Marty steps on the wrong toes, where he gains the unwanted attention of the Snells, provide some properly exciting and intriguing drama.
It’s also refreshing to see that the show sidesteps the whole “father’s a criminal but has to lead dual lives, keeping it a secret from his family” bit and instead has the rest of the family be made aware of Marty’s business very early on. This unique direction gives the show its own voice, it avoids cliche and its compelling to see how the family reacts to the truth early on; watching Wendy and the kids get actively involved provides some properly intriguing moments as well as successfully highlighting the importance of family unity by the very end. Ozark also impressively manages to balance a few side stories very well, giving many different characters a chance to shine and ultimately delivering a taut, multi-layered drama series.
The series can seem quite prolonged though as the leisurely pace is often a bit of an issue and interest does wane at certain points; perhaps it should have been an episode or two shorter. There’s also a flashback episode that had the potential to spice things up a bit but it doesn’t really go anywhere; it’s interesting to see how Marty got involved with Del in the first place but that particular episode does utilise flashbacks within flashbacks and it can get rather difficult to figure out the chronology of it all, especially since it switches to and from that darned blue filter that the series is so fond of.
And on that note, visually, Ozark is often nice to look at as it boasts some pleasing vistas of the Missouri Ozarks but it is filmed with a blue filter that is often disconcerting and unpleasant to endure; the filter does give the series its own unique look and does suggest a certain danger and menace but personally, I wished that they would simply cut it out, even going so far as to adjust the picture setting on my TV, switching to a “warmer” setting, even if that does indeed ruin the intended ambiance!
So all in all, this is an impressive original series for Netflix and I would easily welcome a second season.