Narcos Season 1 available August 28 on Netflix.
Netflix continues its efforts to reach an international audience with the original series Narcos, which was filmed primarily in Colombia with a cast of actors from around the world, and splits its dialogue about 50-50 between English and Spanish. Narcos is more compelling and less awkward than the streaming service’s last international production, the dull Marco Polo (which is nevertheless getting a second season), but it’s still a bit stilted, attempting to tell a sweeping historical story while short-changing the characters who populate it. Also like Marco Polo, Narcos is a fictionalized version of actual history, although it sticks closer to true events, incorporating numerous real figures as main characters and making ample use of archival footage.
Set in Colombia in the 1980s, Narcos tells the story of the rise of the Medellin drug cartel, led by notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura). On the other side of the conflict is American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who also serves as the show’s narrator, and his partner Javier Peña (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal), both stationed at the U.S. embassy as they spearhead the U.S. efforts to stop Escobar and his associates. Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, one of the show’s producers and the director of the first two episodes, has likened Murphy’s ever-present narration to Goodfellas, but it lacks the cleverness and moral ambiguity of Ray Liotta’s voiceover in Martin Scorsese’s classic gangster movie. Instead, it’s more like the info-dump narration of a documentary, and Narcos too often feels like a history lesson with occasional drama.
Moura gives the show’s best performance as the deadly, grudge-holding Escobar, who balances his murderous impulses with delusions of grandeur (he plans to become Colombia’s president) and excessive generosity. The supporting characters are mostly one-dimensional, and even Murphy, the ostensible second lead, barely gets any distinguishable traits. At the infrequent times when his narration recedes and the show delves into the personal lives of the people affected by Escobar’s actions, there are hints of the toll that living through this battle has taken. But mostly the show is a breezy tour through history, sometimes informative but rarely affecting.