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Netflix’s Narcos is like a bland guy reading you the Wikipedia entry on Pablo Escobar

Wagner Moura is mesmerizing as Pablo Escobar in Narcos, Netflix's disappointing new drug trade bio-drama.
Wagner Moura is mesmerizing as Pablo Escobar in Narcos, Netflix's disappointing new drug trade bio-drama.
Netflix
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The blandly attractive DEA agent storms into the room, then stops stock-still. Something his colleagues are watching on TV has surprised him. His face goes blank for a moment. "Oh my god," he says.

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Then the voiceover kicks in. "Oh my god was right!" he says in his vaguely Southern drawl, before going on to explain, for minute after minute, just what piqued his interest so fervently.

It's not the worst scene in Netflix's new Pablo Escobar bio-drama Narcos — there are far worse — but it's one that's most indicative of the series' problems. This is a potentially great TV series waging war with a deeply mediocre one, and the mediocre series almost always wins.

There's one simple reason for that: This show is so overstuffed with plot elements that it doesn't trust its audience to figure out anything. At all.

Rampant voiceover destroys Narcos

The cast of Narcos

See, if you were watching this scene, there would be a man telling you who everybody was and what they were doing, even as they were doing it.

Netflix

In the early going, watching Narcos is like having the Wikipedia entry on famed Colombian drug kingpin Escobar read to you by a bored American guy while the events he's talking about are reenacted on screen. It's a momentum killer, constantly underlining things we the audience could figure out for ourselves and making sure it doesn't miss those particular plot points.

The best TV series know their audience is smart and will figure things out. Narcos is so insecure on this point that at one point, our narrator tells viewers that the Narcos (Escobar and his fellow drug traffickers) are going to a fancy hotel — right as the onscreen action depicts them pulling up to and entering a hotel. What does the constant voiceover add? Nothing.

There are a few good reasons to try voiceover with this story. For one thing, it sprawls all over the place. By the end, it encompasses Escobar and his crew, the officers and agents trying to bring him down, and much of the Colombian government. Having somebody there to keep track of all of these characters could be a helpful thing, if voiceover were used sparingly.

For another, there is a lot of information the show has to convey, and there are occasional sequences — as when the show needs to depict how Escobar got drugs across national borders — when it illuminates, rather than presenting a redundant copy of what's on screen. Finally, that narration allows the show to condense over a decade of story into just 10 episodes — no easy thing to do.

But the danger with voiceover narration is always that it will become a crutch, something the writers lean on instead of figuring out how to dramatize complicated subjects or themes, one that pushes out development of any characters other than the person doing the narration. That definitely happens here, and it extends to the rest of the show, which oversimplifies every time it could complicate. Characters don't possess much in the way of nuance. Instead, they're all constantly operating in bold italics.

Part of the problem with the voiceover is who's speaking it

Boyd Holbrook plays Steve Murphy in Narcos

Boyd Holbrook's voiceover work as Steve Murphy leaves much to be desired.

Netflix

Those who defend this kind of all-encompassing narration often point to the classic gangster film Goodfellas as a work where having that much narration enhanced the story, rather than detracted from it. And this is true! Ray Liotta's constant narration in that film is a key part of why it works.

But there's a big difference between how Goodfellas uses narration and how Narcos does. In that film, Liotta's character is a wannabe gangster who achieves his dream. Director Martin Scorsese uses the narration to draw a line between what Liotta's character thinks about the mob world and what it actually is. It's a film about self-delusion as much as anything else, and the narration is a key part of creating that distinction.

But Narcos's narrator is Steve Murphy, a DEA agent played by Boyd Holbrook. His narration is rarely about showing the allure of Escobar's way or life, or even underlining how those who pursue ruthless criminals can become just as ruthless in their pursuit (something that happens late in the series).

Instead, it's just about conveying lots and lots of information, in that flat accent that rarely engages. The narration, then, has no real narrative purpose, and that extends to Steve, who is pretty much just an ultra-generic cop in a game of cops and robbers where the robbers are so much more interesting. (Those aware of the real-life history of Escobar's downfall have assured me that Steve Murphy was actually a fascinating character in his own right. None of that translates here.)

Thus, spending more and more time inside Steve's head gets that much more irritating as the series goes along — even though Narcos gradually reduces the amount of narration, particularly in its latter half. And, indeed, the last five episodes of the season are a bit better than the first five. That's not all thanks to Steve shutting up every once in a while, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

That's too bad, because there's plenty to admire here

Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook in Netflix's Narcos

As Javier Peña, Pedro Pascal (left) is great. Too bad he's not in this nearly as much as he could be.

Netflix

When the series sticks to Escobar and his crew, it instantly becomes better. Brazilian star Wagner Moura plays the drug lord with a doomed grandeur that extends to even his earliest days, when he's a low-level smuggler. And as the show shifts into depictions of Escobar's attempts to avoid the long arm of the US law and the increasingly livid Colombian government, it gains some of the urgency earlier episodes lacked.

This is particularly true of the episodes where (historical spoiler alert!) Escobar goes to a prison of his own devising that ends up being just as much of a prison as any government jail. No matter how many luxuries he has shipped in and no matter how often he gets to see family and friends, he's still stuck in a place that he can't leave. And for someone as shark-like as Escobar, being penned in one place can feel incredibly isolating.

But the series' good points extend beyond Escobar from time to time. Filmed on location in Colombia, it certainly looks gorgeous. When Steve and a colleague meet with an informant at twilight, Bogotá glowing like a bed of coals behind them, it instantly validates the expensive choice to shoot overseas. And the frantic action sequences gain so much from being shot in actual jungles and city streets, as opposed to rough Los Angeles approximations of same.

There are even occasional pleasures on the law enforcement side of the story, especially when Pedro Pascal is on screen as Steve's partner Javier Peña. (Sadly, this happens too little.) In addition, it's fun to see any series bankrolled by a major American TV provider that gives over so much of its time to a language other than English (in this case Spanish), when even 10 years ago there were serious questions as to whether American TV audiences could be bothered to read subtitles.

Yet the simple fact of the matter remains — with just 10 episodes and many, many years of story to tell and multiple sides of that story to tell, Narcos is far too cluttered to work as a TV series. The solution to that ended up being omnipresent narration that grates far more often than it informs. And while it's easy to complain about that narration (and it's the most obvious example of the series' problems), it's just the most obvious symptom of the series' central problem: It wants to be about too much, in too little time.

Narcos is currently streaming on Netflix.

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