TV Review: Narcos Season One (USA, 2015)

A week ago, we gave you our impressions of Netflix’s new crime drama Narcos and came away impressed and eager to see where the series would go. A week later we’ve had time to sit down and work our way through the first season of the show and while we still feel it’s a strong addition to Netflix’s catalogue, it definitely has room to improve.

Set in the late-1980s, Narcos follows the rise of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and the efforts of DEA Agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) to bring him down. As far as source material goes, it’s great stuff and it’s nicely packaged together by Agent Murphy’s recounting of the various escalations and concessions of the fight against Escobar.

While the series itself is generally pretty grisly, it isn’t afraid to embrace a stylish and kinda playful take on Escobar’s rise to power – particularly in those first few episodes. Director and executive producer José Padilha makes a fun habit of dealing out major plot beats by simply pausing the action and having Agent Murphy’s grumbled narration jump in to say ‘Hey remember this thing that happened three episodes ago? Maybe there’s more going on with than we originally let on’.

A big part of what lets this unique approach work is the calibre of acting in the show. Things just wouldn’t work if the role of Escobar ended up in the wrong hands – but thankfully Moura does a perfect job of conveying the figure’s terrific presence. Similarly, Pedro Pascal’s scenes are a delight, even if the show makes a borderline-criminal underuse of his talents.

The supporting cast is a bit more hit and miss. With a scant few exceptions, it’s all either minimally-developed highly-masculine drug dealers or similarly-shaded government agents. Putting the show’s lack of female voices to the side, there’s a grating homogeneity that really drags the latter part of the series down.

Narcos other big double-edged sword comes with the series’ sprawling feel and scope. While early episodes do a great job of fitting the rise of Pablo Escobar into a tight episodic structure, later ones become a little bogged down in the details and more-or-less abandon smart plotting for ‘and then this happened next’.

Though not without its merits, Narcos often feels like an ill fit for Netflix’s binge-ready approach to television. It’s a series that’s got great acting, stylish direction and rich source material on its side – but as it goes on, it loses a some of its charm. It’s a series you should probably still check out – but it’s one you should take your time with.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)