Functioning as a history lesson as well as a compelling drama, “Narcos” has a “Goodfellas” vibe, inasmuch as it offers a heavily narrated, first-person account of the rise of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the DEA’s attempts to thwart him. Detailing cocaine’s rise as a Colombian cash crop and its rapid spread into the U.S. in the late 1980s, the sparely told project weaves together a taut, gripping narrative, in stark contrast with the flatness of its characters and color scheme. All told, this Gaumont production is the kind of binge-worthy TV addiction that Netflix was born to import.
Granted, the streaming service has certainly featured splashier series in terms of casting and subject matter, but the authenticity that “Narcos” brings to its fact-based story (there are, inevitably, some disclaimers regarding just how fact-based) trumps much of Netflix’s more celebrated fare. The filmmakers, moreover, have employed an intriguing device by incorporating actual footage of Escobar and the period, relying on the audience to separate fact from fiction (and not incidentally, probably saving a few bucks on recreating some of these scenes).
Reality TV, notably, already has gotten into this act, using elaborate re-enactments to augment its storytelling. But “Narcos” cleverly reverses that process, using news-type footage — including, inevitably, Nancy Reagan delivering her “Just Say No” to drugs admonition — to help advance its scripted agenda.
Ultimately, Escobar’s rise is a classic “Scarface”-esque rags-to-riches story, albeit one whose flourishes, such as the drug dealer flirting with politics, fall under the “You couldn’t make this stuff up” heading. Yet series creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro go well beyond Escobar’s narrow tale — using narration by DEA agent Steve Murphy, played by Boyd Holbrook — to chronicle the political history of Latin America and the climate that gave rise to the drug cartels. Into that world saunters Escobar (Wagner Moura), who quickly demonstrates his brand of quiet menace by dissuading the authorities from arresting him, as he talks in detail about their families, providing chilling evidence of his long reach.
Already an accomplished smuggler, Escobar sees the big picture when told about the money that can be made from peddling cocaine, musing aloud (like much of the series, in subtitled Spanish), “Imagine how much it will sell for in Miami.”
It’s that intrusion into the U.S. that alarms the American government, leading to Murphy’s assignment in Colombia. There, in the second hour of three previewed, he teams up with Javier Pena (“Game of Thrones’” Pedro Pascal), who gains access to information about the cartels by, among other things, sleeping with the same women they do. When Pena speaks to one of his contacts about the U.S. feds compensating her, she says of the drug lords, “Those guys are richer than Uncle Sam.”
“Narcos” hardly breaks new ground in documenting the often fruitless nature of the drug war or the heavy toll exacted on innocents by both the criminals and the authorities. In fact, its underlying message, beyond providing a historical snapshot, comes closer to HBO’s “The Wire” than anything else.
Nevertheless, the program zeroes in on the issue at an interesting time, with a growing effort to decriminalize marijuana in the U.S. that is still being met with prohibitionist opposition — proof that old habits die hard. Continuing fallout from drug trafficking in the region, including Mexico, also provides sobering context that makes this more than just a walk down memory lane.
The brazen nature in which the cartels operated is so outlandish — including plenty of premium-cable-worthy killing, nudity and sex — that the episodes can’t help but fascinate, even with a storytelling approach that dollops out information about the characters by the very tiny spoonful. Perhaps that’s because the series exhibits such a sense of underlying authority about its subject (augmented by Colombia locations) that the details hardly seem to matter. Unlike most series, “Narcos” isn’t about the players, but the game.