When did Jason Bateman become such a good actor? And director? This show transplants a "Breaking Bad-ish" plot from the desert Southwest to the green Midwest, and it's great. The parallels with that show are many, except there's less overall initial innocence, and the kids find out the truth far faster. It stars Bateman, Laura Linney and a solid supporting cast. It's extremely well-written, and drips with regional accuracy, showing us the seamy underside of southern Missouri drug crime, mixed with the crisis-a-minute foibles of a displaced suburban family. One season made so far, and the show got green-lit for a 2nd. It's tense, brittle, darkly funny in a desperate way, bleakly emotional and overbrimming with class consciousness.
Bateman sheds his typically comic skin and goes dark, cool, plotting, cynical, icy, playing Marty Byrde, a calculating money manager from the Chicago suburbs who gets in over his head as a money launderer for a Mexican drug cartel, fronted by Esai Morales as the coldly homicidal Camino Del Rio. Linney is excellent as always, as Marty's wife Wendy, a mom trying to grasp at fraying threads of family identity, and hold everything together. Two young actors, Sofia Hublitz and Skylar Gaetner, are terrific as their frantic, frightened, confused kids, teen Charlotte and tween Jonah.
When things go sideways with the drug gang in Chicago, Marty barely convinces Morales to let him relocate to the Ozarks of Missouri, where he promises that the lakefront brims with under-managed small businesses and real estate parcels, terrain ripe as fronts for laundering activity. The family has 48 hours to split Chicago and a week to set up credible laundering operations. The kids are crudely uprooted, and circumstances in the Ozarks both freak them out and force them to grow up far too quickly. They intermix with a clan of trailer-dwelling locals, with mixed results, at first being sized up as easy marks, foolish city folk ripe for exploiting, but then the locals see how smart a business analyst Marty really is, and they begin to realign themselves in partnership with him. Julia Garner plays a 19-year-old sharpie, Ruth Langmore, with sly survivalism. She rules the Langmore compound of two adult male relatives and two younger male cousins; nobody screws with Ruth, and don't you dare eat her last can of Pringles. She comes to appreciate the opportunities Marty represents faster than anyone else.
Within a couple of weeks, he has his hands on the tillers of multiple area businesses: marina/bar, strip club, real estate agency, church, funeral home, and has drawn the attention of the local sheriff more than once. The stakes rise geometrically as Marty enters a three-way partnership with the Mexico cartel and the Snells, Jacob and Lisa, an infamous, and powerful, regional clan who control the region's heroin trade, and who have understandings with local law enforcement. The Byrdes gain an unexpected and unusual ally in Mr. Buddy Dyker (Harris Yulin), the terminally ill man who sells his lakefront home to them in exchange for the right to live out his remaining days in the basement of the house. He moves from creepy to clever to vital. Jason Harner and McKinley Belcher play a pair of obsessive FBI agents intent on nailing Marty and his Mexican bosses, and not too troubled by their unethical methodology.
Something occurs to me about "Ozark." That part of the country has increasingly come under writers' lenses, in the same way the New York-New Jersey Italian American experience did earlier. A dramatic test bed for crime stories. The novels of Daniel Woodrell, especially, draw some scary, desperate Ozark hills portraits, and do so with veritas, because he grew up down there and still lives in that region. This show hits the right visual and social notes: turkey vultures pinwheel languidly overhead, while dirty deeds get done dirt cheap down below, with particular emphasis on the rigging of dockside electrical junction boxes for the purposes of seemingly accidental electrocutions. All of this is set against a blue-green vista of remote lakeland life, both naturally beautiful and socially poisonous. Marty Byrde jumps from crisis to crisis, using his raw intelligence to feverishly protect his family from the dangers he himself exposed them to. It's wicked, cruel, sly, funny, dark and beguiling stuff.