Netflix's Ozark: In the run up to season 3, a look back at what makes the neo-noir show a global success
A Netflix ‘original’ crime series, Ozark was released in July 2017, and is one of the most-streamed web-shows of the last decade. As a noir drama, the show has a generic antecedent in film history. It is a modern derivative of the film noir – the stylish, dark and brooding crime dramas that came out of Hollywood in the 1940s.
The first season of Ozark is replete with the metaphorical 'Chekov’s gun,' and true to the dramatic principle, all of them are accounted for later in the series.
While the series has its fair share of violence, it does get as grisly as some of the other popular neo-noir shows on television and web.
One can speculate that the financial meltdown of 2008, political and social displacement of people across the world, and the suffering of families under authoritarian regimes must have contributed to the astounding success of the show.
Season 3 of the show is slated to release on 27 March, 2020.
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.” Anton Chekhov famously gave this dramaturgical advice to would-be drama writers, about how something as striking as a firearm cannot be a mere decoration, it has to have a purpose. What he implied was that a new element introduced in a story or a plot should have a specific dramatic function, even if it is not immediately validated. The first season of Ozark is replete with the metaphorical 'Chekov’s gun,' and true to the dramatic principle, all of them are accounted for later in the series. Every single character and location, each one of the numerous subplots, the reason behind every missing character, neatly converge at some point. And there are real guns too; and a fairly regular procession of dead bodies.
While the series has its fair share of violence, it does get as grisly as some of the other popular neo-noir shows on television and web. The focus is on the plot and characters, rather than on gratuitous violence, or sex. In fact, a large part of Ozark's appeal stems from the clever use of the landscape of rural and suburban America. It provides a remarkable canvas on which an evocative tale of crime, deceit and passion unfolds over the first 20 episodes.
A Netflix ‘original’ crime series, Ozark was released in July 2017, and is one of the most-streamed web-shows of the last decade. Crime and noir series on American television such as The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mindhunter, have garnered tremendous following across the world over the past decade. These serials match the global popularity of European shows such as The Bridge, Wallander, Trapped, The Killing, Broadchurch, all of which have spawned a massive fan culture globally. This surge of interest in crime dramas, especially among millennials, is manifested over social media and fan sites. Young and old discuss and interpret the narrative, predict plots, share behind-the-scene accounts, maintain dedicated Facebook pages, but most importantly, track news items about forthcoming seasons and episodes. There is a huge buzz in the fan circuits since the third season of the show, slated for release on 27 March, was announced.
As a noir drama, Ozark has a generic antecedent in film history. It is a modern derivative of the film noir – the stylish, dark and brooding crime dramas that came out of Hollywood in the 1940s. While there is a recent tendency to describe all crime fiction as noir, the term specifically connotes films where sin and redemption, sexual desire, jealousy, deceit and betrayal are key themes. The plot and theme of Ozark neatly fit into the classical definition of a noir. Marty Byrde, a Chicago financial consultant, his wife Wendy, and their two teenage children, are forced to move to the remote Lake District of Ozark in Missouri, after his business partner is murdered by a Mexican drug lord, whose money they had helped to launder. To save himself, Marty assures the cartel that he will launder their money from the newly developing Missouri town. Ozark is pregnant with noir tropes – the hero trying to pull off one last criminal act in his attempt to live a normal life; manipulative women (the femme-fatale) use guile and charm to entice men into crime; shocking betrayals involving all the main characters; heists or robberies which go wrong, often with deadly consequences.
Ozark has strong thematic similarities with Breaking Bad – especially the doggedness with which an average family man takes recourse to crime and violence to ensure that his family’s financial security is not compromised. Both Walter White (in Breaking Bad) and Marty Byrde normalise crime. White is ready to annihilate people who come in the way of his mission, even it means risking his life or that of his family. Byrde refrains from taking life until he is forced to kill a person to save his wife. But both men essentially use their brains to outmanoeuvre their enemies. Walter White is a chemistry prodigy, Marty Byrde is a number-crunching financial wizard. However, unlike in Breaking Bad, women in Ozark are not passive beneficiaries or victims of crime. They are active participants, who take part in every conceivable brutality. The show is atmospheric, while Breaking Bad is not. Ozark evokes the great noir films from Hollywood, especially in its use of visuals and sound. The cool colour palette of the visuals, with a dominance of blue, reminds one of the European films and TV dramas, rather than the usual American series. The filmmakers deploy high definition digital cameras cleverly, utilising their capacity to capture realistic visuals in low light conditions. Some of the spectacular scenes of the series take place in the evening or at dawn – during the ‘golden hour’, as cinematographers call it. These scenes, especially in the backdrop of the lake, have an unusual sensuousness that adds to the series' enormous visual appeal.
While its cinematic appeal has endeared Ozark to noir aficionados, its universal popularity across cultures and demographies could be ascribed to its arresting storyline, about a beleaguered family trying to find its way out of a seemingly hopeless situation. One can speculate that the financial meltdown of 2008, political and social displacement of people across the world, and the suffering of families under authoritarian regimes must have contributed to the astounding success of the show. As a result, there are enough reasons to believe that the show's season 3 will reaffirm its popular and critical appeal.
Dr Indranil Bhattacharya is professor — Screen Studies and Research at FTII
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