Let’s play the handy High Quality Drama Game. At this point in the history of outstanding TV, new shows often land on either the “Sopranos” or the “Wire” side of the fence. The “Sopranos” series delve into individuals, their relationships, and their hidden psychological drives; the “Wire” series are broader, more sociology-minded portraits whose characters are parts of large, dysfunctional systems. The former dig down into the dirt, the latter climb up to look around.
So what is “Narcos,” an electrifying new Netflix series about drug trafficking in the 1980s? It’s definitely a “Wire” type show, as it delivers a far-reaching look at how cocaine use and Pablo Escobar rose to prominence, and how DEA agents labored to end them both. Across 10 episodes, it weaves together the history of drug policy, the questionable methods of law enforcement, gang warfare, elaborate action set pieces, spying intrigues, epic bloodbaths, and details about the intricate smuggling systems that kept the Medellin cartel at the top of the heap.
I can’t say “Narcos” offers stimulating ideas about Escobar’s motivations, as he coldly orders assassinations but then becomes distraught, in episode 2, when a dog gets shot. He’s quite a chilling figure, well played without any excess or histrionics by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, but he remains inscrutable; we knew more about the fictional drug kingpin Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” who was affirming his manhood with every batch of meth he cooked. As a TV antihero, Escobar is an enigma. But I can say that “Narcos” is nevertheless addictive, compelling, shocking, and even educational.
Essentially, the story has two major strands. We see how the cocaine trade springs up in Colombia, with Escobar and his men quickly evolving from small-time thugs into a giant organization moving kilos to Miami embedded in the fiberglass of boats, in female drug mules, and, yes, in Coca-Cola bottles. The drug is inexpensively made, easily marked up, and highly addictive, a perfect combination. Among locals, Escobar is revered as a Robin Hood, as he gives away money and housing when he has too much cash to launder. But we see his ruthless executions, the way he threatens harm to the families of policemen, how he cheats on his wife despite claiming to be a family man, and we know better. Wisely, creators Chris Brancato, Eric Newman, and Carlo Bernard have Escobar and his goons speaking Spanish, with subtitles, an appealingly authentic element to the series.
The other side of “Narcos” is about the DEA, and one agent in particular, Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). Before Escobar and cocaine, he and his colleagues were busy running down hippies in flip-flops dealing weed. Now they’re working in a higher-stakes milieu featuring caches of automatic weapons. When Murphy is assigned to Colombia, things get gnarly for him and his wife quickly, as officials at the airport detain and harass them. Right away, he is on Escobar’s screen. Murphy is teamed up with Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal, Oberyn Martell on “Game of Thrones”), an agent who gets insider information about the cartel by sleeping with one of their regular prostitutes.
As with Escobar, Murphy — who, in real life, is the guy who took the famous 1993 photo of DEA agents crouching beside Escobar’s corpse — is underdeveloped as a character. His reasons for choosing a life chasing evil aren’t sufficiently addressed in screenwriter Brancato’s script, beyond some vague notions of idealism and adventure. Still, Murphy provides solid entrée to the story, as a kind of DEA everyman and as the show’s narrator.
Indeed, Murphy’s dynamic and sometimes wry narration will put you in mind of one of Martin Scorsese’s best films: “GoodFellas.” You only need to watch the first minutes of “Narcos” to see that it is an unashamed homage to the 1990 mob classic, with its dynamic camera sweeps and the same kind of voice-over that Ray Liotta gave as Henry Hill. The visual tones on the show are more muted than those of “GoodFellas,” but the kinetic energy, the high-riding crooks, the fascinating workings of their business, and the ever-creeping paranoia are the same.
One of the ironic moments in “Narcos,” which includes some well-placed news photos and documentary clips, gives us footage of Nancy Reagan telling America’s kids, “Just say no.” The famous slogan is an easy target, especially since the clip appears in “Narcos” while viewers are witnessing a drug trade that’s thriving regardless of the first lady’s campaign. But it’s nonetheless an important piece of the “Narcos” story, the misspent efforts that plague our unsuccessful “war on drugs.” As entertaining as it is to watch “Narcos,” a period drama with artfully filmed cat-and-mouse games between the cartel and law enforcement, there is a relevant — and very “Wire”-like — truth at its core.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.