Ozark May Be Over, But Its Still Overrated
Can You Spoil A Series That Stunk Like A Rotten Fish From the Start?
I would have been just fine if my article classifying Netflix’s Ozark as part of my Overrated series had been the last word I ever had to write about that series. But I knew in the end it wouldn’t be. I’ve already expressed fundamentally that Ozark is the definition of an Emmy bait series and that trend will no doubt continue into the Emmy nominations just a few months away. I may spend immense time pretending it isn’t going to be there, but I’ll have to talk about it by July at the very latest.
To be clear, I’d gotten more than my fair share of Ozark by the time I’d finished Season 1 and I have absolutely no intention of ever watching the remainder of it. So I did the ‘easiest’ thing I could, I went online and got details on how the final season had played out, and who lived and who died. (For those of you who care, there will be spoilers for the fourth season ahead.) And honestly, the more I read about the episode summaries of Ozark I got a much clearer picture of why so many people loathe the series and so many critics love it.
Ozark is the dictionary definition of Peak TV. It is centered around an ordinary family who finds themselves at the center of a criminal enterprise (like Breaking Bad) it shows the loss of innocence, one by one, of each member of the family (The Americans comes to mind as a far superior example of this) and it shows as the families tries to get out of their situation, the body count on both sides of the law as well as innocent civilians gets higher and higher (Sons of Anarchy a series genuinely beloved by some comes to mind.) And it has a lot of great actors and actress — Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Julia Garner and so many others among its cast — (I’m reminded in a sense of Damages). It has all of the ingredients of series that are generally given awards.
The thing is what Ozark has always lacked fundamentally, and became clearer throughout the final season (though to be clear, I gather that only from reading about it) were any huge penalties for the Byrde family. They moved to the Ozarks in the first season to get out from under the thumb of a cartel. In order to do so, they involved innocents, criminal families (particularly the Langmores) and multiple law enforcements agencies, local and federal. But with one major exception, they didn’t really pay for it at the end. Walter White died at the end of Breaking Bad, but his family will spend the rest of their lives living under the shadow of Heisenberg. Philip and Elizabeth escaped prison, but they will live their lives in Russia without their children. And all the deaths of Sons of Anarchy in the final season were basically of the people in the family of SAMCRO.
The Byrdes by contrast got away with all of their crimes, survived every attempt of the crime families and syndicates to murder them, and will live the rest of their lives in Witness Protection; with the last person who might be able to stop them being killed in the final seconds by Jonah, the Byrde son. Now you can argue as much as you want about the loss of innocence of the Byrdes children and that the sins will be passed down to them, but the fact is in the final episodes Wendy maneuvered a way to subvert her children’s last attempt to get out of from under them so that she ‘could take care of them’. Considering that every action Marty Byrde did was under the guise of protecting his family, they were doomed by the end of the first season at the most.
Defenders of Ozark — whoever they are — will no doubt try to show the arc of the series in comparison of The Sopranos. (By the way, the cut to black before the shot was fired wasn’t homage to the infamous final episode; it was a rip-off.) But The Sopranos was about the decline of the American Dream and how most it has corroded so that the average American not just criminals will always make the choice that hurts them the least if it involves violence. Ozark basically showed that no matter what choices you make in the world of crime, it always results in death and violence — except to everyone involved. At least Carmela managed not to directly have anyone killed during the run of the series; Laura Linney’s Wendy seemed to have just as high a body count as her husband by the end, and seemed just as determined not to get out clean. Which she did — even the car crash that could have killed her in the final episode, she walked away from unhurt.
I don’t want to try and draw a parallel between the rise of Ozark and the problems that Netflix as a service is facing, but let’s consider what the four series offered that were nominated for Best Drama by the Emmys before Ozark debuted in 2017. (I include Orange is the New Black as a drama for this purpose. House of Cards, before it essentially became a soap opera, told the story of the behind the scenes machinations in contemporary DC and how one couple could manipulate them for their own benefit. Orange is the New Black went behind the scenes of the American penal system to look at justice, race and sexuality through that lens. Stranger Things, among its other virtues, tells the story of the power of family and friendship and how even the outcasts among youth can bond against unimaginable evil. And The Crown looks at the story of the decline of the British monarchy and how its stultifying rules have drastically damaged the lives of the ruling family even as they increasingly become mere figureheads.
Ozark, by contrast, is a blunt and cynical story that basically seems to say that if you’re a white family who has control of money and power, you can get away with murder and bloodshed and walk away clean — a story that we didn’t need Jason Bateman or the writers to tell us.
That’s not to say that none of the other shows I just mentioned aren’t just as cynical about power and the corruption of human nature: House Of Cards and The Crown emphasize this to a great extent. What makes Ozark far weaker a series by comparison is how heartless it is about all of its central characters. The Underwoods may have ruthless when it came to climbing over anyone that got in their way, but the series went out of its way to humanize Frank and Claire, particularly when it came to their marriage and the traumas they had gone through growing up. They were haunted by the death of Peter Russo, at the very least. Similarly, watching Elizabeth try to strain against the monarchy’s rules in the first season and then bring them down on her own children in Seasons 3 or 4 plays not so much as bad writing but as the genuine cost of being part of a system that was anachronistic long before she became heir to it.
By contrast, neither Marty nor Wendy seems to have an ounce of compassion towards anyone from the Pilot on. Marty doesn’t show any regret or remorse for the situation he has put his family in, and any sympathy we might have for his situation is lost by the fact he went in with his eyes open. Wendy is initially more sympathetic, but in later seasons as she arranges to have her bipolar brother be killed to protect her children and tries to save her children against her wishes show that she doesn’t even seem to have any compassion for her family. And for all her efforts to show regret when the Byrdes realize that Ruth — their closest ally and the woman whose family they destroyed in their climb to protect their own — is going to be murdered, she still does nothing about it. What’s one more body to protect foundations?
And I think this has had an effect on how many people view Netflix. People had reasons to keep watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, even after it became a slog in some case. By contrast, many people had a reason to stop watching Ozark and start complaining about it in a way that many viewers hadn’t about so many Peak TV series. Series like The Crown and Stranger Things were reasons to get Netflix; Ozark was a good reason to start watching Hulu or Amazon.
Ozark will probably end up getting Emmy nominations for Best Drama as well as acting nominations for Bateman, Linney and Julia Garner. The fact that there are far better dramas on their air that have more imagination and verve — I’m thinking particularly of series like Evil and The Good Fight, far more well acted and written dramas that are among the most likely to be overlooked — is irrelevant. Ozark is, as I mentioned in my Overrated Series, an Emmy bait show. The fact that, like almost all Emmy bait shows it may have the cast and writers that merit awards while the product doesn’t, is irrelevant at this point. The Emmys have given this series all the money and power. And as the Byrdes have taught us, once you have that, it doesn’t matter what bad things you end up doing to get there. At least this will be the last time we have to deal with Ozark. There are other series that I will get too that are just as overrated that we will be dealing with for awhile.