What if “Breaking Bad” started in the middle of its run? When Walter White is half-way Heisenberg, but there’s still some humanity left.
Imagine if we never got to see White as a chemistry teacher: We just casually see him at work, having dinner with his family. Then suddenly, he pleads for his life with the leader of a Mexican drug cartel.
Trade Bryan Cranston for Jason Bateman (who you probably know as Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development”), and you have Netflix’s newest drama, “Ozark.”
In “Ozark,” which became available on Netflix Friday, Bateman’s character, Marty, is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Bluth. He’s the slightly awkward dad who’s trying really hard to impress his kids. He’s hard-working to a fault. But Bateman’s performance, even just in the excellent first episode, will convince you he’s got acting chops that go far beyond comedy. (Bateman is also executive producer, and directs four out of the ten episodes, including the premiere.)
From creators Mark Williams and Bill Dubuque, “Ozark” follows Bateman’s Marty Byrde, a financial planner living in Chicago. In the first minutes, Marty seems like a normal guy. He’s good at his boring job, he’s a good dad, and is maybe an absent husband to Wendy (the always excellent Laura Linney). But by the end of the episode, you find out Marty has been laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel for years. And he’s in trouble: He has to get out of Chicago, and find a way to launder a lot of money for his drug lord boss in very little time.
What separates “Ozark” from “Breaking Bad” is its slow pace (despite a thrilling pilot), and a “fish out of water” element. Worlds collide as the Byrd’s suddenly (seriously, within one weekend) pack up their entire life in Chicago and move to the Missouri Ozarks.
The series is good – though not really good. It’s worth wasting a weekend on your couch if you have some time.
There are a lot of elements that work. “Ozark” is beautifully shot and the soundtrack is biting, which elevates the tension. And the decision to have Wendy tell the kids what their father is doing, and why they actually moved to the Ozarks, pushes the narrative forward in a way that many other shows wouldn’t dare. The kids’ knowledge of their dad’s illegal side gig provides a unique dynamic, and leads to a punny scene where Marty explains how money laundering works to his son while they’re doing laundry.
But like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright on “House of Cards,” “Ozark” probably wouldn’t work if it didn’t have Bateman and Linney leading the way. The secondary characters are all well-acted, particularly Julia Garner as Ruth, who also proved herself a talented young actress on FX’s “The Americans.” But there’s something missing. These other characters, from the Ozark natives to the FBI agents, are just not that engaging or layered enough. You don’t really care about who they are or what their motives are, save for Marty and Wendy’s son, Jonah, who might have some of his dad’s bad side in him.
You can watch the “Ozark” trailer below: