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Narcos: Season 1

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // Unrated // August 23, 2016
List Price: $29.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted August 20, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

There's little doubt these days that the desire to retell stores, or tell new stories in a different way, tends to work to varying levels of success. I couldn't help but think when a show on Netflix called Narcos came out, it was another attempt in that vein. Moreover, having enough memory growing up to see the show's subject, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, certainly piqued by curiosity. I remember Colombia being on the morning news almost daily for another Escobar exploit, and in between that and having a peripheral knowledge of the excellent "Killing Pablo," I thought I had a good knowledge of the material. One of the best compliments I could give Narcos is that it caters to audiences of varying familiarities quite well.

The show is from the mind of Chris Brancato, who handled several roles on various television shows and had feature credits like (Hoodlum) to his name. The decision came to film Narcos in Colombia, and the man who portrayed Escobar was Wagner Moura (Elysium). The season covers Escobar's gradual rise in power and notoriety, ranging from 1977 to 1992. It shows the various Colombian politicians and drug lords to supported him, or tried to go up against him. It also shows a DEA agent named Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook, Run All Night), who took his wife Connie (Joanna Christie) to Colombia to help fight the war with various government entities in the U.S. and Colombia.

Narcos makes no attempt to hide from real-world history, nor should they. The credit montage has requisite shots of Escobar on his compound and newsreel footage. The show falls more along the lines of a mild docudrama. A more exact way of putting it is Narcos ‘fills in the gaps' of history with human context. Whether it's Moura's Escobar or his business manager/cousin Gustavo (Juan Pablo Raba), or the political people like Cesar Gaviria (Raul Mendez), they fill in the gaps adeptly. They aren't dead-on mimics of the people they're supposed to portray, but the motivations of these people are given excellent explanation. Putting Narcos in Colombia wasn't integral, but it definitely helped.

Circling back to something I said earlier, for as much as I knew about the Escobar exploits, it remains amazing to me to see how much Escobar was able to get across borders and over bodies of water in order to rake in the hundreds of millions of dollars he did. Even on smaller (to American audiences) things like the rise and eventual assassination of Presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan (Gaviria was Galan's debate chief at the time), given more versed people a lesson to why Galan was so dangerous to Pablo, and Pablo's expression of these things, it gives you a bigger appreciation to what Narcos is trying to accomplish and why people appreciate it.

There is a weak link to the show and oddly enough, it's the thing that the show creators hope would be the most accessible. Holbrook and to a lesser extent Christie are supposed to serve as some windows into Colombia past Escobar, and Holbrook's attempt to make Murphy as a guy affected by war comes off as trite. If anything, Murphy's partner, Javier Garcia (Boyd Holbrook, Game of Thrones) comes off as more authentic in the show than Holbrook does. Holbrook admittedly has a difficult mountain to climb, he just doesn't pull it off.

By comparison, Moura's performance as Escobar is excellent. His appetites grow insatiable, whether it's money, power or love. Few people try to tell him otherwise, his family enable it to a degree, his only dissenting voice over the course of the show is Gustavo, and Raba's performance is up to the task. When Pablo finds himself in La Catedral, a prototypical definition of a golf course prison, the empathy he shows as a man trapped and unable to be who he wants to be is palpable. He has enablers in this self-built prison, but they aren't up to those in the cartel where he made his colleagues. It's a testament to where television is that there can be little qualm about the Best Actor Emmy nominations, yet you could easily slot Moura in for recognition.

Narcos complemented the mythology of Pablo Escobar and in doing so, gave themselves the chance to create some of their own, resulting in an engrossing first season. When you consider that when it comes to historical events, you're looking at about 15 months left in Escobar's life you wonder just how a Season Two or even Season Three of Narcos is going to play out. With Moura in front and capable voices behind, it will not be without entertainment.

The Blu-rays:
The Video:

The 10-episode run of Narcos is spread over three discs and presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and in high definition using the AVC codec. I watched the first half of the show on Netflix (hey, Bojack Horseman wasn't about to watch itself), and the second half on discs and there wasn't a noticeable drop-off in quality from digital source to physical one. The greens of the Colombian jungle contrasted against the browns of the dirt and mud roads looked vivid. The lights of the clubs in the street are just as good and have no noise to speak of, black levels are deep for most of the show and image detail in faces and clothes is ample. It's excellent work from Lionsgate on these discs.

The Sound:

DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround for all episodes. Quick tangent; other productions that have focused in the era would probably have thrown a whole bunch of early ‘80s music in front of you as an attempt to throw flash over substance. You don't get Jan Hammer in Narcos; you get a soundtrack that replicates firefights and gunplay convincingly and with a high level of immersion. Explosions and rocket launchers have low-end fidelity from the subwoofer as do truck idling and other dynamic moments. Dialogue is well-balanced and strong throughout the series.

The Extras:

Bonus material is included on all three discs. Disc One has a commentary on the pilot from Moura and one of the show's executive producers Jose Padilha as they discuss how each came to the project, and meetings with Netflix for the show. There are some thoughts on the other cast members and some decent production anecdotes, and the socioeconomic thoughts and impact from drugs is talked about, among other things. Disc 2 has two extras: "Establishing the Route" (24:49) is a look at the making of the show, the inspiration for it and decision to shoot in Colombia, and the real-life context of Escobar. The popular reception of the show via Netflix is also talked about. "The Colombian Connection" (11:41) looks at the shoot and the intent for the portrayal of the people there and the pros and cons of the shoot in same. It also has a commentary on Episode 6 ("Explosivos") with Brancato that talks about the gringo production in cafetero land. He also talks about the events that people suggested to include as well as storylines, and some production detail to go with liberty on some of the events.

Disc 3 has a commentary on the finale with director Andres Baiz and executive producer Eric Newman which may be the best track of the bunch. In it, Baiz provides some historical context and trivia while Newman talks about the approach and design of the show, and there is ample production recollection from both men, along with Season Two teasers. Of the three commentaries, this may be the best of the bunch. Two other extras complete things, the first being "The Language Barrier," (11:40) which examines the problems of an intentional ensemble and the challenges by same, and 7 deleted scenes (7:23), one of which includes a nice moment between Escobar and his son.

Final Thoughts:

Like a lot of other things, people tend to disproportionately gush over the show or movie of the moment, and Narcos is no exception when it aired last year. That said, there's some nuance to be carved out. It shows life through Pablo Escobar's eyes very well (with a top shelf performance by Moura) despite ham-handedly trying to show the gringos how tough it would be to try and catch him. Holbrook doesn't help matters either. Technically, few television show Blu-rays are going to be better, even if the bonus materials dabble around the edges without a full blown dive in. It's definitely worth checking out, though not as good as the hype others have laid in front of it.

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