Maybe a bleak crime story set in rural Missouri isn’t your idea of summer fun. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with seeking out something a little lighter to spend your summer hours watching. As for me, I could watch a Walter White-knockoff and his family launder drug money, evade law enforcement, and clash with the locals for hours. The new Netflix drama Ozark has all the makings of an endlessly entertaining summer show.
The most important quality in a great summer show is binge-ability, and Ozark has this in spades. With a premise that closely follows the Breaking Bad model — a straight-laced everyman goes tumbling into a dark world of crime — it’s easy to get sucked into a show like this. The first episode shows us Chicago financial advisor Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), years deep into money laundering for a Mexican cartel, begging the cartel boss for his life by proposing he relocate his family to the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri to take advantage of cash-flush vacationers. At the end of the episode, as the Byrdes arrive in the Ozarks for the first time with Radiohead playing over the credits, I realized I had been fully hooked.
As the season wore on I found that the exhilarating promise of the pilot gave way to a show that was pretty confused about its identity. Is it a thriller about greed and capitalism? Is it a drama about a lifeless marriage dropped into a desperate situation? Or is it about a forgotten rural community?
But, ultimately, these concerns don’t really matter. I was so eager to see what would happen next that the well-worn terrain of previous anti-hero dramas and some of the eye-roll-inducing writing (“No… stupid YOU!”) didn’t bother me much. There are hardly any likable characters in Ozark, but even that didn’t stop me from wanting to see this gripping crime story play out. Considering how fast others I’ve talked to have ripped through all ten episodes, I’d say it passes the binge-ability test.
It also helps that Ozark is literally set during the summertime in a vacation town. The Lake of the Ozarks is a place many outside the Midwest probably haven’t heard of. St. Louis is my hometown, so it’s a very familiar setting for me. This is probably why I had such an affinity for the show’s premise in the first place. It’s kind of thrilling to see the (fictional) seedy underbelly of an area you’ve visited many summers.
Ozark gives us glimpses of the vacationers that flock there every year when the weather warms, gassing up their impressive speedboats at the lakeside hotel and bar Marty is laundering money through and drunkenly reveling at Party Cove (the real Party Cove is much more rowdy). However, the show’s main focus is set on the townies, including the dysfunctional Langmore family, who become intent on stealing Marty’s money, and the Snells, the local drug lords who don’t take too kindly to Marty setting up shop on their turf.
This all makes for a wildly compelling escapist summer show, one that allows you to witness the dangerous and shadowy figures lurking behind the scenes of a vacation spot.
Another aspect of Ozark that makes it such a killer summer show is how it blurs the line between prestige TV and semi-trashy pulp. I don’t know about you, but I want my summer shows a little less cerebral and a little more pure entertainment, similar to how most award-worthy movies come out toward the end of the year, while the blockbusters are released in the summer.
Summer TV doesn’t need to be super original (hello, Stranger Things). When it released last month, Ozark’s reviews were mixed at best. Many critics noted how predictable and familiar the show felt — and they’re right. Ozark mimics Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and other anti-hero shows in plot, atmosphere, and tone. It swamps us in a dim blue and grey color palette, which effectively portrays the dire circumstances, but also makes it look like just about every anti-hero show on the block. There’s some JV-level Scorsese borrowing in a scene where Marty explains money laundering to his son while the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” plays on the soundtrack. I will say it again though: It’s easy to forgive all this because Ozark is so engrossing.
There are some refreshing things too. For example, Marty is already deeply involved with the cartel before the show even starts, whereas we saw Walter White break bad gradually. Also, Ozark’s characters don’t even really try to conceal their illegal actions. While it may strain believability, Marty, his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), and just about every other character comes right out with the truth when they are cornered. It’s simultaneously ridiculous and gripping.
While originality is not Ozark’s strong suit, that’s not totally necessary to be a great summer show. It can’t stand up to Breaking Bad, but how many shows can? Because of this, Ozark would probably be even better if went heavier on the pulp and lighter on the self-serious prestige.
As the summer ends and fall TV comes back, I will enjoy seeing smarter and higher quality TV return. A part of me, though, will pine for summer days watching Marty struggle to launder money in southern Missouri. Good news, Ozark-heads, Netflix just renewed it for season two, so I guess I’ll see you all back here next summer.