The deluge of original television programming, from the networks, from cable channels, from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other streamers, and from innumerable other sources, is one of the great byproducts of the Internet age. But, just as the universe of information available on the Internet can make it hard to find every nugget of gold, it can be difficult to find truly exceptional shows amid the flood of lesser fare. I recently found one such: Ozark, produced by and currently running on Netflix.

Ozark tells the tale of Marty Byrde, his wife, and his two children, as circumstances forcibly relocate them from Chicago to the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. Marty is a financial planner, a rather talented one, working to secure his family’s financial future even as he torments himself over his wife’s infidelities. We are introduced to his story, which gets fleshed out across the 10 episode first season with both exposition and flashback, early on. Marty (Jason Bateman, superb), we learn from the outset, has been laundering money for a south-of-the-border drug cartel, embodied by the suave and slick Del (Esai Morales, also superb). When it turns out that Marty’s partners skimmed millions of dollars, Marty saves his neck and his family’s lives through quick talking, quick thinking, and what’s tantamount to a “Hail Mary” bluff about how the Lake of the Ozarks offers a golden opportunity to launder the cartel’s drug revenue.

Marty is forced to make good on the money his partners stole. He liquidates everything he’s earned and saved and hands it over (literally, as bags full of cash) to Del, who promptly gives it back to him to prove that his Ozarks scheme was more than a bluff. So, Marty packs up the family and spends a summer working his money-laundry magic.

The Lake is, of course, populated by colorful locals, who, despite TV trope and stereotype, are uniformly excellent and well developed characters, both good and bad. Among the many notables are Julia Langmore, an opportunistic 19 year old member of a stereotypical ozark-redneck clan, Rachel, the owner of a local resort, Jacob Snell, the patriarch of a powerful local family whose business interests Marty intersects, Buddy, a man counting down his final months who develops a relationship with the family, and a number of other consequential characters whose paths (and lives) Marty crosses in his scramble to meet a (literal, miss it and die) deadline. We also follow the efforts of a (personally troubled) FBI agent and his partner who, clued in by Marty’s very quick and highly unusual conversion of his family’s assets into $8 million in cash, try to figure out what he’s up to, who he’s working for, and how to build a case against him.

The show is a taut thriller from front to end, one that barely ever lets the viewer catch his breath. It surprised me multiple times with shocks, plot twists, and “never saw that coming” moments. Be forewarned – it’s not for the faint of heart, with a few gruesome moments, some disturbing scenes, and its share of coarse language. The term “thriller” tends to be overused, in my opinion, but this show certainly qualifies.

Moreso, it’s wonderfully plotted and scripted. Marty’s talent is consistently on display, with every success, solved problem, and averted situation followed by new “what’s he going to do now” events. Bateman is steady and nuanced, depicting in his character the elements we’d expect of someone with his financial talents. Laura Linney is also splendid as his wife Wendy, who has to deal with the sudden existential threat to her family and manage her teenage daughter and pre-teen son through it, all the while dealing with the aftermath of her affair.

Two major themes stand out. The characters behave reliably in their own self-interests, whether they be immediate or long-term; and the characters consistently recognize and capitalize on their positions of power. Their actions, reactions, and behaviors all ring true. Yes, there are tropes at play (which I won’t spoil), but even some of those that appear cheap-and-easy early on are deftly fleshed out and made believable. It’s also refreshing to find intelligence, awareness, and insightfulness among the stereotypically back-water locals, and it’s pleasant to see that Ozark doesn’t try (unlike too many thrillers where the protagonist suddenly becomes superman) to turn its main characters into something they’re not.

Interlaced with the perpetual tension and evolving narrative is a healthy dose of ethical debate and moral relativism, which serves to further develop the many characters and build believability into the show.

I must admit, I was skeptical about giving the show a try at first. The title, for some reason, put me off. Perhaps I feared a stereotypical city-boy-in-redneck-land cliche, or something to that effect. Unable to find anything else to watch at the moment, I decided to give it a one-episode test-drive.

I am glad I did. Ozark is superb, and I strongly recommend it.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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