Martin Byrde is a financial advisor, and a good one. He lives a comfortable life with his wife, Wendy, and their two kids, Charlotte and Jonah. His business partner, Bruce, may be a somewhat smarmy guy, but Byrde doesn’t have that problem – he’s just a regular family man trying to make his way in the world.
Yeah, not so much. There’s no TV series if that is really Marty Byrde’s disposition and lifestyle, and there is a TV series – it’s called “Ozark” and it launches on Netflix on Friday.
To be clear, we are absolutely meant to believe that Marty, played by Jason Bateman (who also executive produces the series and directs four episodes), is that guy, but the scales are quickly removed from our eyes. The long and the short of it is this – Byrde is involved with Mexico’s second largest drug cartel, Wendy (Laura Linney) isn’t quite what she seems either, and things quickly spiral out of control.
This all poses a problem for Marty and we watch him move from Chicago to the Ozarks and try to sort stuff out over the course of the first season, but the really interesting thing is how the series attempts to balance our look at the character because it wants to have it both ways.
“Ozark,” which is led by showrunner Chris Mundy, tries very hard to make us like Marty, to make us think—despite everything he’s done—that Marty is indeed a good guy. It’s not Marty’s fault that he has to launder millions of dollars very quickly. It’s not Marty’s fault that some people have their lives ruined. It’s not Marty’s fault that some people are dying. But, it is Marty’s fault. It very much is his doing.
Much of the time that the show wants us to sympathize with Marty, and we do. We know that he’s a bad guy, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. He’s a bad guy for his family, and he’s just the money man anyway, he’s not the guy pulling the trigger or selling the drugs.
A lot of “Ozark”‘s success, and by and large the show is successful, comes from its ability to have us like Marty, that Mundy and Bateman make it happen. However, there are definitely moments when it doesn’t come off as well as it might. Moments when the strings are little too obvious, when the series feels—like Marty himself—a little too cool and calculating.
One of the unquestionable highlights of the series is Linney. As with Marty, there is more to Wendy than meets the eye. Her marriage to Marty may have its issues, but “Ozark” doesn’t demonize Wendy. It easily could, but over the course of the season, as we learn more about the character, it becomes clear that while she and Marty may have different expertise, she’s his equal.
In terms of the narrative, in episode after episode, “Ozark” has to balance not just the personal story between these two and their kids (played by Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaertner), but also the business tale. Perhaps predictably, while the series again is mostly successful, there are moments that feel too perfectly calculated at achieving maximum impact. It is almost as though someone looked at the season and tried to figure out when they needed more nudity or more violence, just to keep things moving.
While going back to this cold and calculating well once more may seem silly, it must be said that the argument—this is a good show where too often strings are visible—is again true of the local characters the Byrde family meets upon leaving Chicago and moving to the Ozarks. From the ill occupant of the house the Byrdes move into, Buddy Dyker (Harris Yulin); to the owner of a lodge tourists frequent, Rachel Garrison (Jordana Spiro); to a 19-year-old thief, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner); to just about anyone else (and there are plenty of locals); there is too often a sense that they are being moved around by the invisible hand of a producer.
This issue may make “Ozark” less enjoyable than it could be, but the series is still the type of binge-able television Netflix delivers. Bateman is good as Marty and Linney is outstanding in her role, as is Esai Morales, who plays an upper echelon member of the drug cartel.
There are twists and turns and lies and deceit and machinations throughout the season. So many machinations. But, the characters are interesting, the cast is good, and the turns in season one are enjoyable. In short it makes for solid rainy weekend viewing… if you don’t have kids around.
photo credit: Netflix