With the boom of TV drama, there were bound to be shows that feel overly familiar. A popular trope to emerge from the boom are shows that follow middle-aged criminal men. Most of this delves from “Breaking Bad” and its success, but many other imitators have found their way to the air. This is where “Ozark” comes in, led by the rather intriguing pairing of Jason Bateman and Laura Linney. While the show feels a little paint-by-the-numbers in its initial presentation, creators Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams (“The Accountant”) have found something that works here.
The series follows Marty Byrde (Bateman) after his financial partner’s money skimming causes him to owe a violent drug lord (Esai Morales) over $8 million. Marty is stuck in a rut at work and seems overly focused on maintaining his financial security above all else. In other words, Marty’s cheap to his detriment, and his friends and family resent him for it. His wife, Wendy (Linney), is cheating on him and seems equally unhappy in her life as a housewife. The children are slightly privileged, but they quickly develop a strong idea that something is going on. Meanwhile, FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner) and a local crime family led by Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) have taken a keen interest in the Byrdes.
Again, the premise is simple, but the devil is in the details. While the show feels a bit slow at times, there are plenty of moments that pay off in surprising and intriguing ways. The first episode, “Sugarwood” sets up the stakes expertly and with extremely graphic imagery. While it begins in a financial office, Bateman’s unhappiness is instantly apparent. As events unfold, Bateman begins to shed his shell and quickly jump into a different kind of man. It’s a smart move for a show to simply move along that progression instead of wallowing in Byrde’s perceived nerdiness.
One of the things that jumps to mind with “Ozark” is that it feels like Netflix cloned the basic ideas of “Bloodline” and dropped them in the Midwest. Bateman seems ready to shed the straight man persona he’s developed over the years. He’s been solid in some comedic dramas, so this is the official turn to drama for him. Bateman’s pushing his chips into the pot, and even directs a handful of the episodes to showcase another side of his talent.
Linney is predictably strong in the series. Like Robin Wright, Linney’s move to TV showcases how rounded she is as an actress. She’s a fully fleshed out character in her base form. However, she’s also not a negative force in the show. The writers are disinterested in simply using her as a heel, and she sheds that persona after the first episode. She’s still far from happy, but seems to have more agency at the start of the series than most women get in these shows.
“Ozark” is dark, not only thematically but visually, and this does present some potential pitfalls for the series. Other Netflix series, such as “House of Cards,” get bogged down in self-seriousness. “Ozarks” has slipped some moments into the show that display that it understands the ineptitude of many of the characters early, which should bode well for the show down the road.
In an early episode, two of the Langmores buy bobcats to breed them for exotic pet traders. However, de facto leader Ruth (Garner) immediately recognizes that her uncles bought two female bobcats. While she explains her devilish plan for the audience, she locks her uncles in the bobcat cage for the night. The dichotomy of the ridiculous imagery with a real threat being posed against Bateman works surprisingly well. It would be remiss of me to ignore that the same episode might have the best pet adoption joke on TV. Even if that joke occurs during a sleep-deprived hallucination. Both instances tell audiences this is not just about the serious business. With humor sprinkled in, the show stands to improve significantly once it feels itself out.
While there are several shows of its ilk, “Ozark” should place itself as one of the stronger criminal series. It’s not perfect by any stretch and suffers at times for its slow approach to the drama. Those inclined to enjoy crime shows will jump on board here, but others may be hesitant. It’s a fun show that almost relishes its familiarity. Like a comfy chair, you can sink into the comfort here watch a few episodes without thinking too much. The jury’s still out on “Ozark,” but it’s worth giving a chance to Netflix’s newest kid on the block.