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Netflix's 'Narcos' Wastes Pablo Escobar's Life on Bad Storytelling

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | September 14, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | September 14, 2015 |

Netflix’s Narcos is a frustrating disappointment. On the one hand, it’s beautifully shot, and there’s a lot about it that does work. On the other hand, there are a lot of elements that don’t work either, and just tend to drag the entire rest of the show down around them.

Basically we’ve got something pitched as the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, told from the perspective of a couple of American DEA agents, one of whom is the one and only Pedro Pascal. The problem is that the show’s about the rise of Escobar for about two episodes and then a bloody stalemate for eight episodes, and the nominal protagonists are the least interesting characters on the screen at any given time.

When this show works, it’s about the vicious gray-area struggle of Colombians who want to take back their country fighting against both a corrupt government, and against drug dealers who in the height of irony are seen as Robin Hood style heroes by the downtrodden. There is magic to this. There are gorgeous and tragic stories here of politician after politician dying, of men who go into the darkness they are swearing to fight, of the terror of living with a price on your head by people who are trying to buy your silence, of the weeping exhaustion of a nation that negotiates with terrorists because they can’t bury anymore children.

And then we get a couple of incidental American cowboys shoehorned into the protagonist position so unbelievably that the actors can’t even act like they really matter to the story.

The story is also ill-served by the choice to utilize a pseudo-documentary angle at times. It’s especially egregious in the first few episodes. Show don’t tell. It’s very basic storytelling that they beat into you at community college workshops, but damned if they’re not going to give you an American dude’s voiceover of news footage instead of actually showing us the story.

There are often scenes, especially early on, in which we have two minutes of voiceover news footage followed immediately by a thirty second scene that appears to exist for no reason other than for the characters to react to the info that we just had spoon-fed to us. Except that the characters shouldn’t be reacting to it in that way, because they have been living it day in and day out. They don’t just find out about two months of plot advancement in a voiceover like we do and then take time to yell at each other about it on a random Tuesday afternoon.

And the voiceovers themselves are atrocious. They each rattle on in a dry monotone that has exactly the same pattern of speech. Duh-duh-duh; duh-duh. Pause. Duh-duh; duh-duh-DAH. Over and over. Voiceovers shouldn’t be in monotonous iambic pentameter. And every single one of them ends with some painfully dramatic and overly serious statement like “but the war was only beginning” or “but this time, there would be no peace”.

Numerous plot threads are picked up with no real reason and then dropped just as quickly. A way that stories like this can get into trouble is by somehow feeling that they don’t have to connect the dots since they’re telling a true story. Like when the protagonists decide to take home and shelter a communist who’s being hunted by the CIA because she might have info. And then hide her. And then risk jail time protecting her from their own country. And then smuggling her out of the country. Yeah, I get that this actually happened, but in the context of the show there is absolutely no reason why they would do any of this. And then once she’s gone none of it mattered anyway. This is a repeated phenomenon. Yes, real life is messy and complicated. But when you set about telling a story, you carve out what makes it a story instead of just random miscellaneous tangents.

In small plot points that’s annoying, but in larger ones it becomes insufferable. Like how over the course of about half an episode, Escobar goes from hero of the people to vilified murderer. “I’m going to be president!” Says the drug dealer, who then walks into the parliament to take his newly elected seat. And then an opposition politician throws up a copy of his mug shot, and goes “DAMN, how do you explain this, son?” And then Escobar says nothing, walks immediately out, and starts blowing up shit and everyone hates him. Start to finish is like seven minutes of screen time in a ten hour series. I’m sure the real situation was a lot more complicated and nuanced, but what’s on screen is that apparently showing a mug shot of someone in the Colombian parliament automatically impeaches them six minutes into their term?

That’s just bad storytelling. And it’s rife in this show. It never really finds any kind of rhythm in odd ways. Like how the beginning of the first episode is a flash forward hook that is resolved at the end of the eighth episode. As the episode concluded I thought that I’d misread the number of episodes in the season, but no, autoplay launched another episode because we needed a two episode epilogue after the frame of the story played out.

It’s not a bad show, it just makes a lot of very fundamental errors in storytelling that leave it lacking any kind of real spark.

Finally, and I append this more as an aside to this review, is the issue of subtitling. When there’s more than one language being spoken in a show, it makes sense that native languages should be used. Having Spanish being spoken constantly, and the Americans not understand it is exactly how those scenes should have been filmed. But a solid 95 percent of this show’s dialogue is in Spanish, and probably 80 percent of that is when the only people present in the conversation are all Spanish speakers as well. I don’t have an aversion to subtitles, but when an American-made show for an American-run streaming service is 95 percent subtitled, and when that show is heavily dialogue intensive, you end up reading the screen more than looking at it. And that means that you are constantly missing a huge proportion of the facial expressions, background events, and visual cues that are a critical part of watching a television show.

I don’t know that there’s a good alternative, but once I’d been reading text for 45 minutes of a 55 minute episode, over and over again, I really felt that the choice of language had become less about artistic integrity and more a Gibsonesque self-indulgence at the expense of actually being able to watch the show.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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