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Julia Garner as Ruth Langmore

Netflix has reportedly surpassed all competitors with its original programming, but if it continues to produce fiascos like Ozark, how that trend can continue beggars the imagination.  There is nothing original about this series – a work that seems derivative of countless other works, and not in a good way.

The series is about a family whose surface appearance is all-American wholesome, but whose heads of household are engaged in seedy, immoral, criminal behavior, thus endangering, and at times directly involving, everyone inside the family unit.  This idea is as stale as The Sopranos is a classic.  Some reviewers have compared the series to Breaking Bad, but there are shades of many other series and movies – including Twin Peaks, and even Deliverance, as this family on the lam flees Chicago for the picturesque, gothic world of the Missouri Ozarks.

“Given the thin gruel of a script the actors are forced to swallow, it’s amazing the acting is so fine.”

The story refuses to let us engage, as every promising thread of a compelling narrative is picked up, then dropped, for some new and baffling character or subplot.  Given the thin gruel of the script the actors are forced to swallow, it’s amazing the acting is so fine much of the time – beginning with, but not limited to, the luminiscent Laura Linney and the electrifying Julia Garner, who rank, along with the breathtaking mountain scenery, among the series’ few reasons to watch.

The program seems to have three different modes of operation – suspense (they flee for their lives), drama (the ordinary stuff of families), and blessed, restorative – in this case redeeming – comedy.  This split among genres in itself is not a bad thing – the tendency of much modern fiction is to flirt with the boundaries between illusion and reality, and comedy, among other devices, can be put to great creative use in this process.  But the laughs in this series effectively disappear early on, as the narrative becomes darker and more twisted with every episode.

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Laura Linney

My favorite parts of the show, in the first few episodes, were in fact the sudden, unexpected appearances of comic relief, during which you see the actors, fleetingly, as actors, delighting in the goofiness of their situation and having fun with the dialogue.  Ozark, however, can’t seem to make up its mind what kind of story it is, and the constant twists and turns in the road soon create their own kind of monotony.  Far better to give the viewer a compelling character – then develop that character and that promise of a plot – than to constantly rob the viewer of what little warming up he or she has managed so far in the experience.

And I cannot write this review without commenting on what is the biggest, darkest mystery of them all:  Episode 8.  What is it doing here?  Did they really need an extra hour of streaming time so badly, they had to cobble together what appears to be all the detritus left on the cutting-room floor and make a pseudo-episode out of it?

We find ourselves in a flashback to ten years earlier, with the family in Chicago again.  The beautiful mountain scenery has disappeared – not to be replaced by the beautiful skyline scenery, but by cheap drywall-looking sets and endless, pointless dialogue over lunch and brunch and aperitifs about morality, fly-fishing, mother’s drug habit, and what-do-we-do-now.  Instead of looking ten years younger, Laura Linney looks ten years older, and sounds like she’s recovering from a bad cold.  It is indeed a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and one I don’t like to think about.

“Though some readers may not forgive me for spoiling the action, I see the situation differently, considering it a public service announcement.”

Finally, I feel I must pass along a general description of the single worst scene in the series, which appears in the final episode 10.  Though some readers may not forgive me for spoiling the action, I see the situation differently, considering it a public service announcement instead.  I speak of an episode in which a father drowns his infant son, the camera lingering so long and lovingly on the event, you cannot believe your eyes, and the child cannot possibly survive such an assault – until – head fake! – all is well!  (Here I leave something to the imagination of those who frown on us nasty, spoiling reviewers.)

The scene is unforgivable, and has led me to write what I consider a merciless review, rather than just a bad one.  My suggestion, if you’re turning to Netflix this weekend, is maybe trying Anne with an E, or any one of dozens of others, which surely can’t be any worse than this mistake of an original program.

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