In its first season, “Ozark” looked like an aspirant to “Breaking Bad’s” status as a near-universally-admired drama about a charismatic, talented antihero, with one crucial difference. Its protagonist Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), a money-laundering accountant fleeing with his family to the Lake of the Ozarks to start raising quick cash, began bad. The show’s drama was increasingly pitched, even as the moral stakes were near-invisible: The show rewarded the character who was most ruthless, and its ensemble kept the competition for that title heated.
The show was more than a little derivative, alternating between attempts to one-up every other antihero drama with yet more twists and occasional cliches about the evils of which man is capable. But it was, too, crisply made, as elegant in its delivery of shocks as the slickest theme-park ride. Its insights about crime and cruelty made the shootings and drug deals, the show’s main action, go down all the smoother. All that helped it vault past the crowded marketplace, and one market-analysis firm declared it Netflix’s most-watched show last summer. And key Emmy nominations for Bateman for acting and directing (where he was one of two “Ozark” directors nominated) indicate that the show came close to cracking the best drama field.
And in its second season, “Ozark” hums on, riding that wave of pure competence. There’s more juicy examination of the manner by which truly nasty people make their way through the world, more jarring violence, more twists, more of the Byrdes finding ways to stay afloat. And yet “competent” is not always praise. It’s almost unspeakably disappointing that a show in which Laura Linney is constantly threatening people is quite so boring. The show is built to provide more of the same high-quality thrills, shocks, and malice, which makes for a strange sort of disappointment, as the shows to which it has the closest surface-level resemblance push into new territory year after year.
For all the show’s story has rebooted in its second season—the Byrdes, working with a sphinxlike lawyer (the welcome Janet McTeer) are plotting to open a casino, pesky gambling-commission laws be damned—its stakes remain the same. Marty and Wendy (Linney, terrific as a creamily assured agent of destruction, far more volatile than her husband but hiding it under pleasantries) have nowhere to go as characters. As the title indicates, they’re rooted to the spot in the Ozarks; they’re also stuck in characters who feel unrewardingly flat. We’ve already seen that both of them are proudly amoral, with vague flickers of conscience that feel less like character beats than ways to bulk out a ten-episode season. They’re proudly brutal, and the show—in what may be its biggest misstep—spends too much time flattering their sense of themselves as not the sort of people who do exactly what they end up doing all the time.
“Ozark” would be polarizing were it not, ultimately and despite all the violence, so tame. It’s easy to feel left out of the pleasures the show offers—swift-moving action, clarity masquerading as moral crisis—and yet hard to find much to which to object. The cast, from headliners through the ensemble, is working to the peak of their abilities, and Bateman has always had a streak of tetchy meanness that makes him better-suited to playing venal heels than comic heroes. His charisma had worn away over the course of season 1, revealing a simple animal need to survive. And yet the show’s second season provides little thrill of discovery, no amplification of what themes it possesses, and barely any real movement outside the hermetic world the Byrdes share.
That’s less a bug than a feature: The show is something of a hostage drama, one in which Marty and Wendy, their children in tow, are being held captive by their own attachment to evil. Refusing to grow much past where we met them in the pilot, they must stay put, holding the show in place with them; for all the explosions it shows us and all the complications of opening a casino, “Ozark” is resistant to change. That makes it ideal televisual wallpaper for a binge spent otherwise occupied. We’re ultimately a long way from the now-clichéd antihero visions of TV’s previous generation, shows that shocked and engaged viewers by revealing new levels of horror: “Ozark,” having proudly staked its claim in the muck with the Byrdes and unwilling to move them, ultimately avoids drama in favor of familiar satisfactions.
Drama, 60 minutes. Premieres August 31 on Netflix.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Julia Garner, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner.
Crew: Executive Producers: Jason Bateman, Bill Dubuqe, Mark Williams, Chris Mundy, David Mason.