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Review: ‘Ozark’ Is Still About the Money, for Better and Worse

Review: ‘Ozark’ Is Still About the Money, for Better and Worse

When people describe the thrust of a show, they’re describing the idea that fuels its momentum from one episode to the next. For example, the thrust of Breaking Bad is Walter White’s changing character. His transformation dictates pretty much everything else that happens on the show. The thrust of Mad Men, furthermore, is duplicity; the action hinges on how each character presents themselves to the others. Finally, the thrust of The Americans is secrecy; the action unfolds based on what the characters know and don’t know.

The thrust of Ozark, Netflix’s crime show that begins streaming its second season Aug. 31, is money. Not the idea of money, but plain and simple cold hard cash. Other shows, especially prestige dramas like those above, lean on abstract concepts or heady themes to support their narrative ambition, but Ozark’s driving force is an object. That makes for something that moves fast on the road, but doesn’t finesse tight corners very well. It’s a good show, but unless the engine sees a tune-up, it might never be great.

Ozark has been labeled “Breaking Bad on speed,” which seems to imply equal thematic aspirations as its classic criminal fore-bearer. Not so. Because of its thrust, Ozark is plot-centric. The characters don’t change and their goals stay the same: Marty Byrd (played by a hard-to-pin-down Jason Bateman) and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney, stellar) are laundering money for the cartel, and if they launder enough, they can escape the bounty hanging over their family. The side characters, including the couple’s children and Marty’s understudy Ruth (Julia Garner, award worthy), are chasing the paper, too. On this show, money is the object of pursuit for just about everyone.

And make no mistake, that’s not bad in and of itself. Plenty of shows, like Billions or Succession or yes, Breaking Bad, make financial gain abject motivation for their main characters, but what separates the great shows from the pretenders is how they position that money-chasing to reflect an internal character flaw, something like greed or egotism or narcissism. That’s not happening on Ozark. This show’s not interested in using money as a gateway to discuss something deeper. It’s only using money to keep itself running as fast and hot as possible.

In the short-term, that makes for fun TV. Ozark churns through story like a Real Housewife racks up credit card debt. The actions hits hard and fast and each episode contains enough pure movement to satisfy entire seasons of other shows. If Better Call Saul is a slow burn, Ozark is 16 cherry bombs tied together. The second season adds even more firepower than the first, too, with most of the hours adding tick marks to the show’s body count and tightening the timeline on everyone’s moment of truth. Forget about its lowly thematic ambitions; Ozark has an intricate crime story to tell, and it tells it as well as your favorite beach read.

At the same time, when it’s over, Ozark sticks with you about as much as that sandy pulp novel. A show like this doesn’t have the time or interest to craft complex characters or memorable settings; instead it constructs tight scenarios of conflict that supply short bursts of adrenaline, but no long-lasting energy. Again, in the moment that makes for something totally worth ripping through on a weekend. Just know in the long-term it’s about as satisfying as a one-click buy on Amazon.

Nevertheless, Ozark’s focus on money brings implicit truths to light. On this show, money means freedom, survival, prison, opportunity and leverage. It dictates which character controls the room, who moves on whom and, crucially, who lives and dies. You’re financially secure? You’re safe. Strapped? Done-zo. Ozark is that simple. In a way, it doesn’t have to be any more complicated.

But really, watching the show through that lens is akin to finding $1,000 on the ground and then tightening your belt—this is the time for some mindless spending. When the stakes for the viewer are so low (you’ll care what happens, but not who it happens to), it doesn’t really matter if you throw your TV standards out the window for a few hours. Ozark is spending its metaphorical stack on shiny toys and fleeting thrills. Just this once, why shouldn’t you do the same? If we have unlimited shows to watch but a limited time budget, there should be room every now and then to splurge on something a little less essential.

Let the important TV fall where it may. Ozark, right to its core, hits you with one simple message. This show asks you to indulge, and there are worse ways to treat yourself.

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