As a weary, desperate husband and father in Netflix’s “Ozark,” Jason Bateman is terrific. He plays a mild Chicago money manager named Marty Byrde who launders cash for a Mexican drug cartel and wants to get out of it — not a simple process, as you can imagine. It’s like backing a ship out of a bottle.
Bateman is nicely restrained on the drama, whose first season is available on Friday, giving us a man who only barely controls his panic, a pot always just about to boil. In his precarious position, other men might be screaming and shooting and running away; instead, Marty contemplates and plots. You can feel the chill of his existential struggle, as he seems to constantly wonder if he’d be better off dead than taking on a cartel. On the one hand, he’s a sympathetic guy who has made bad choices, ultimately putting himself in the sights of the nasty cartel strongman, Del (Esai Morales). On the other hand, he’s charmless, very unlike Bateman’s best-known role as the endearing straight man in a pack of freaks on “Arrested Development.” Marty is a drab fellow whose best quality is his ability to lie his way out of disaster.
The last time a comic actor was so transformed by the right dramatic role, we were watching Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad.” And to some extent, “Ozark” works like “Breaking Bad” in reverse, as Marty tries to get out of the world of crime without meeting the fate of his business partner, who is liquefying in a big barrel of acid. I’m not saying “Ozark” is as good as “Breaking Bad,” and I’m not saying Bateman is as good as Cranston; I’d be shouting a lot louder, if that were the case. But the shows are certainly comparable, as an ordinary family faces evil men with guns, devastating deceptions, and plans that never seem to go right. The two shows strike a similar tone, giving us remarkably specific characters and locations while nodding to larger themes about money, America’s failing systems, and masculinity.
Essentially, “Ozark,” created by Bill Dubuque of “The Accountant,” has the Byrdes move to Missouri after Marty promises Del that he’ll be able to find a big payday in the still-untapped potential of Lake of the Ozarks. By episode two, the family is living in a cheap motel by the mountains and Marty is trying to work his new money scheme. He barely has time to think about his broken marriage to Wendy, played with beautiful rage by Laura Linney. He has just learned that she’s been unfaithful, but he’s too busy doing disaster triage to process it. Plus, they’re both focusing on the well-being of their two kids, teen Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and younger Jonah (Skylar Gaertner).
There are many supporting characters on the show, most of them well-developed. There’s the dying man whose house they live in; there’s the local family of crooks led by 19-year-old Ruth (Julia Garner); and there’s Rachel (Jordana Spiro), the owner of the lodge where Marty winds up working. Dubuque quickly gives us a strong ensemble of city folk and hicks, innocents and thugs. The overall vibe of the show is suspenseful, but there are small pockets of comedy usually found in the behavior of the locals. As much as we might keep expecting Bateman to give us some ironic and meta-tinged eye contact, it’s just not going to happen.
Starring: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Jordana Spiro, Michael Mosley, Peter Mullan, Julia Garner, Esai Morales
The 10-episode first season is available on Friday