As a viewer, there is something vaguely unsettling about our introduction to the protagonist of OZARK, the new Netflix drama series. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is, as we come to learn, a family man. When faced with a possible end to his life, he remembers a sweet moment with his wife and two children. But Marty is also a financial analyst who happens to be a money launderer to Mexico’s second largest drug cartel. And when you first meet him you are torn whether to like or dislike him. In fact, this love/hate feelings towards the show’s characters is a struggle you will face again and again and it’s a dichotomy that OZARK pulls off with sublime ease.
Whether Marty is a hero or an anti-hero is almost beside the point, because you will find yourself rooting for him regardless of your feelings towards his actions. Marty is a smooth operator. And he may engage in a bevy of illegal activity, but he’s damn good at his job and at business in general. So when he’s faced with the anger of his drug boss, he manages to buy himself and his family a short reprieve. But there’s a clock ticking over Marty’s head every moment as he struggles to fulfill his promise to the cartel — that he can launder an incredible amount of money for them in a short period of time. This promise takes him to the Ozarks, a region he believes will provide him with an opportunity to clean this dirty money with ease.
What he soon finds, however, is that things won’t be that easy. And this is where you feel for him — because while Marty is desperately trying to achieve what we would consider an unsavoury goal, the truth is you pity him as he’s stymied at every turn. His wife Wendy, played by Laura Linney, is not helping matters as Marty’s life initially spins out of control, even as she tries to keep their family together and deal with this unexpected situation her husband has put her in. His teenage daughter is making his life more difficult by interacting with local riffraff, even as he does his best to protect his children from this terrible situation. The people he encounters in the Ozarks are forever providing obstacles as he races against an almost impossible deadline. And you come to realize that what was billed as a lake-side haven is actually a hotbed of illegal activity and shady characters unto themselves.
Bateman’s strengths, for those of you who have watched ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, have always allowed him to shine in comedy. He’s superb as a vaguely sarcastic, almost put-upon character. But Bateman proves again with OZARK that he is also skilled at drama. Marty is a complex character and Bateman plays him well. His smooth and fast-talking ability as an actor is put to use as Marty plays up his salesman angle again and again, but Bateman isn’t playing Michael Bluth here. As I said, you hate Marty at the same time as you’re rooting for him — he’s both victim and villain. The tone of the show also plays in nicely to that vaguely unsettled feeling you experience at the outset. The Ozarks themselves are misty and the coloring of the show is blue and washed out, lending an air of fog and danger to the series.
OZARK is a series that is worth both your time and attention. It’s superbly shot and full of rich and complex characters, even if you loathe half of them all of the time and the other half of them only some of the time.
OZARK premieres on Netflix globally on July 21.