Narcos, Season One (USA, 2015)

Narcos_S1_CocaineMap_LAYERED_v02Created by: Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro. I had only barely heard of this, but due to my crazy obsessive thing about TV, I really wasn’t going to start another show, especially a show that only just started. I usually like to wait a few years to see if people are still talking about it, and to see if it’s still pretty good in its fifth season or whatever, or if it keeps going into its eighth or ninth season, in which case I probably just won’t start (sorry TNG). But of course, it’s Netflix, and they really have set the bar high enough with House of Cards that I was willing to go on a limb. And besides, investing in a single season of a current show isn’t so bad—you can only burn through one season before you have to chill the fuck out and wait for the next one, so that’s what I did. I didn’t recognize any of the actors (except the great Luis Guzman, and Pedro Pascal from Game of Thrones), I knew nothing about the production, and I basically knew nothing about Pablo Escobar except that he lived in Colombia and he was a major supplier of all the cocaine in North America in the 80’s. But I’ll be darned—this is a very nice show! It starts off with a voice-over of the main character, the only American, and our main source of English speaking dialogue in the whole show, and it gives us exposition straight up, self aware, and very narrator-like. And frankly, that’s great. This is a show that shows its interference on its sleeve, that takes a very bold stance on its place as a historical fiction. It does something that I don’t think I’ve seen much of (if at all): it includes primary footage—TV news reports from the day—which itself isn’t that weird, but they go one step further and include footage of the actual people they’re depicting, instead of always inserting a retro-fitted, sometimes CGI-enhanced, Forrest Gump effect of the modern actor standing in for the person. So in this show, the actor and the historical personage exist side by side—in other words, the show is definitely giving you a pretend play-acting of “real history”, but it’s always reminding you that it’s a fiction, and at the moment, I find all that super duper interesting. As each episode goes on, in real time, the show presents history itself as a series of compelling narrative events or “episodes” that are naturally just as compelling as scripted television drama, and simultaneously, in real time, the show constantly undermines the effectiveness of all of that stuff by showing us the source material, the “real” people and events, thus inviting a comparison between the actual Escobar and the actor who, as incredible as he is (Wagner Moura, and he really is incredible), will always seem to pale in authenticity and significance in comparison to the historical person we see on archival TV footage. BUT THEN—hold onto your hats—the show reverses all THAT stuff, because at the same time, the archival footage looks grainy and muted, and even though it’s “real”, it totally can’t hold a candle next to the bright colours and high definition of the television drama actors. I wrote a paper in my undergrad (bear with me here), talking about FLQ films (it’s a Canadian thing, look it up),  and the juicy part of that was how I stumbled onto this weird thing where the more mediated and tampered-with, the more obviously artificial and technological and covered in human intervention a certain historical event is, the more real it feels. (In a nut, there was a fictional drama about the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte, inside the home, inside the terror cell, etc, and then later a TV documentary about the events themselves, featuring interviews with politicians etc. The thing is, in the absence of documentary, archival, primary source material of the drama, the conversations behind closed doors, etc, the documentary used the footage from the movie, a dramatic historical-fiction film, instead. What’s more, the documentary added a special grainy, hazy effect on the footage of the movie that wasn’t in the movie itself, thereby making it seem like an old home movie, or a collective memory. Hence, the more artificial the history is, the more stylized and aestheticized the filmic depiction of history is, the more authentic and immediate and real it feels.) When you’re watching Narcos, the idea you start to get is that, to the extent that the historical footage is in there to help out the drama to make it feel more authentic, to a much larger extent it’s the opposite—the television historical-fiction drama is there as an aid to the historical record, to fill in the gaps of the collective consciousness. Pretty neat, huh?

As I wrote this, I discovered that there was some push back against this show, its depiction of Colombia, the focus on drugs, etc, and the predominance of American viewpoint etc. But then I found some spin the other way, and I guess for the time being, the two viewpoints kind of even themselves out to me, at least as far as this show is concerned. I’ll just say this—it’s definitely a shame that most acting gigs for Latinos in American films are usually in drug-cop-guns-violence scenarios, ie the current movie Sicario, and the famous Traffic (based on Traffik, which is quite good). If you want to balance shit out for yourselves, feel free to check out Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses, about a Mexican undocumented worker in California who gets class consciousness and begins to struggle for collective bargaining, unionization, etc. Of course, no one’s heard of Bread and Roses because it was an indie arthouse movie by a British guy, and Traffic was a huge release in big theatres, Oscars, etc. I dunno, if you’re interested, see the show, decide for yourself. All I know is, I’ve basically never seen a TV show with this many Spanish speaking parts and Spanish speaking characters, and it’s great seeing the beautiful natural scenery and the cool looking cities of Colombia, etc. I guess it’s a shame that modern television can only stay afloat with sex and violence, but that’s a question for another day I reckon. (But I do apologize for the awful poster image here. There are size constraints with the website, and wherever possible I prefer to get away from an image of a person if there’s some non-person image to pick.)

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5 responses to “Narcos, Season One (USA, 2015)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: Narcos, Season 2 (USA, 2016) | Offhand Reviews·

  3. Pingback: The Circle (Switzerland, 2014) | Offhand Reviews·

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