TV I’m Watching: Narcos

By Shamus
on Sep 17, 2017
Filed under:
Television

Narcos tells the story of the drug war between the Colombian government and a series of Colombian drug lords, with a handful of Americans acting as our main characters even if they weren’t of central importance to the events in question. The show is shot on location, in Spanish, with proper period clothing / technology / cars. This gives the show an incredible level of verisimilitude, even before you realize that it’s all based on real events.

How can you tell which parts are real and which are Hollywood fiction? Easy. The parts that flow like a proper story with character arcs, suspense, and intrigue are fiction, and the cartoonishly implausible stuff about the cartels is real.

The first two seasons told the story of Pablo Escobar, and that guy is where most of the really strange stuff comes from. The guy was basically The Joker, let loose in a world without Batman. Or maybe he was a James Bond supervillain in a world without a James Bond.

The closest thing we have to a super-spy in this story is the morally compromised and profoundly cynical CIA agent Bill Stechner. He’s not here to stop the cartels, he’s here to enforce the ever-shifting will of the US State Department. He’s good at his job and you get the feeling he’s done some really ugly shit in his life, but he’s not the hero and he’s nowhere near being a main character. Like so many fascinating personalities in this story, he’s lurking on the edges of the action and making you wonder how much of him is based on real people or stories.

This isn’t a simplistic story about Escobar vs. The Cops. This story is fractal. At a high level you’ve got the cartels, the USA, and Colombia. But the “Cartels” are a conglomerate made of organizations made of families made of gangs. The USA is likewise made up of different factionsThe military, the CIA, and the DEA. that engage in a lot of infighting. Colombia is a complex country with different economic, geographical, and political groups. Nobody’s 100% a saintAlthough Colombian president César Gaviria comes out looking pretty good. I often wonder what Colombians think of his portrayal on the show. and nothing is clear-cut. The fight against Escobar was a never-ending string of trolley problems mixed with the prisoner’s dilemma mixed with a version of the sunk cost fallacy based on human lives instead of money.

The amazing Wagner Moura played Pablo Escobar. He gained 40 pounds and learned Spanish for the role. I have to ask my Spanish-speaking readers: How is his accent?
The amazing Wagner Moura played Pablo Escobar. He gained 40 pounds and learned Spanish for the role. I have to ask my Spanish-speaking readers: How is his accent?

I usually hate stories about a crapsack world where everyone is a different shade of reprehensible, but this one works for me. I think it’s because the show gives us a few innocents caught up in the action. We can see there is good in this world, even if very little of it comes from our main characters.

I have one gripe with the show. It’s a 30-second moment in the 4th episode that feels so ridiculously out of place that it’s always bugged me. It goes like this: The story needs to quickly establish that a certain drug runner is a decadent, freewheeling, devil-may-care bad boy with endless money to spend and a taste for prostitutes. So as it introduces him it slam-cuts to an overhead shot of his bedroom where he’s evidently just finished shagging enough prostitutes to form a baseball team. They all look like conventional magazine models and they’re all curled up on the bed for maximum flesh exposure. It basically looks like the Rolling Stone cover where Ricky Martin posed with some naked girls, but with the girl density cranked up to maximum.

This sort of abrupt sight gag might work in a movie with a less serious tone, but in the grim and gritty, hyper-realistic world of Narcos this feels like introducing a cartoon character to a David Fincher movie.

My problem isn’t with the nudity, it’s with the silly presentation. Maybe I was supposed to envy this wealthy hyper-stud and his sexual conquests, but all I could think of is how miserable it would be to attempt to sleep in this big pile of people snoring, drooling, and sweating all over the place. Maybe it looks fun, but I imagine it would get old quickly with someone’s knee in your side and an elbow in the small of your back.

I don’t mind the gag, it’s the framing. I’m willing to believe this guy hired a baker’s dozen prostitutes. What I don’t believe is that they all looked like Victoria’s Secret modelsThe rest of the story is really good at making prostitutes look diverse in terms of ethnicity, body type, age, and class. or that they all posed in such a contrived way for a photographer that didn’t exist.

If this scene were shot like the rest of the show then it would have shown the girls post-coitus, all of them looking disheveled, tired, and mildly grossed out. They’d be pulling on clothes and lighting cigarettes while hinting at what an unpleasant client this guy is but how it’s worth the money. Maybe have a visual joke about how they’re all in line for the shower. You can have your tits. Just keep your fanservice in harmony with the tone of the show.

At first I thought maybe this was supposed to be some sort of dream sequence, or maybe this is how this guy sees himself. Except, it would be really strange to jump directly into his mental POV like that, since he’s a new character and his part in the story ends before the episode is over. The show has a reliable handful of POV characters and this guy isn’t one of them.

Then I thought this was a reference to the magical realism idea the sometime narrator (DEA Agent Steve Murphy) uses to bookend the story. Except, that interpretation makes no sense and in fact this fanservice would be a terrible betrayal of the magical realism idea. The story is drawing attention to the fact that all of these fantastical things really happened, so inserting a scene of unrealistic stuff that obviously didn’t runs counter to that. If you’re trying to say “The truth is stranger than fiction” then don’t add really strange fiction to it or you’ll muddle your message.

“Shamus, you can’t seriously be so naïve that you don’t know how fanservice works. Are you new to this planet?”

I’m not surprised that it happened, I’m perplexed that it happened once. Like, if this was supposed to be an attention-grabber to get people to watch the show, then why did it show up in the fourth episode and not the first? If this is a deliberate design decision from one of the creative leads, then why don’t we see this sort of thing in other episodes?

Anyway. That’s a very minor complaint and the only reason I bring it up is because it presents me with this mystery and I can’t help but wonder how this scene wound up in the show.

Some of our good-ish guys from left-to-right: Steve Murphy (real person) Trujillo (fictional, I think) Javier Pena (real person) Horatio Carrillo (Fictional person, based on Colombian General Hugo Martínez)
Some of our good-ish guys from left-to-right: Steve Murphy (real person) Trujillo (fictional, I think) Javier Pena (real person) Horatio Carrillo (Fictional person, based on Colombian General Hugo Martínez)

Outside of this moment, Narcos seems to run counter to most fanservice expectations. There’s no sex and violence quota for the show, which means it feels like anything can happen. Maybe nobody will die this episode. Maybe a lot of people will die. It all depends on this one phone call or this one decision or who gets to the hotel first. Maybe these people are going to screw and maybe they’re not, but it will depend on the actions of the characters and not the need to work a pair of tits into every episode. It makes for an unpredictable nailbiter of a show and I absolutely could not stop watching until the series was over.

Given the violence, nudity, gritty realism, and complex plotting, I’m surprised this show isn’t compared to grim-n-gritty poster child Game of Thrones more often. I’ve never watched GoT myself, but I have read Bob’s analysis and the long debates that followed those posts. I’ve got a pretty good feel for what the show is doing and why people are frustrated with it. I’ll suggest that if you like the GoT tone but you feel it’s lost its way, you might want to give Narcos a look. We’re into the third season now and the show just keeps getting better. Aside from the 30-second fanservice bonanza I mentioned above the show has been true to itself and managed to maintain a tense atmosphere for an admirably long running time.

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Footnotes:

[1] The military, the CIA, and the DEA.

[2] Although Colombian president César Gaviria comes out looking pretty good. I often wonder what Colombians think of his portrayal on the show.

[3]

[4] The rest of the story is really good at making prostitutes look diverse in terms of ethnicity, body type, age, and class.


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2020242 comments. (Insert played-out "meaning of life, the universe and everything" joke here.)

From the Archives:

  1. Steve C says:

    Hey did my original question on TV start a regular Sunday blog post topic?

  2. Michel says:

    I must sound like a broken record. But its Colombia not Columbia
    It pains me that such amount of quality and effort is thrown in to depict for the upteenth time the stoy of pablo escobar, i really wish i could watch it and enjoy as some whatever story as it seems like a great quality show, but after decades of having my country defined by that man I just cant stand seeing that again.

    • Vermander says:

      I’m not from Colombia myself, but I do feel like this series at least attempted to explain the social and political climate in Colombia at the time to an American audience who would probably be totally unfamiliar with most of the political actors and factions involved. I realize this probably does little to reduce your frustration at foreigners constantly depicting your country as a chaotic, violent narco-state.

      If it’s any comfort, while Pablo (and the Cali Godfathers in Season 3) are obviously major characters, not all of the story is told from their point of view and we are introduced to many different Colombian government officials, police officers, journalists, and other figures trying to take down the cartels. I realize that many of these characters are probably heavily fictionalized or are composite characters based on several people, but I liked that they are actual characters and not just a bunch of nameless extras or helpless victims. I also liked how it explained why many Colombians may have resented the US meddling in their country even if they did share some of the same goals, especially since they are the ones who ultimately pay the price if things go wrong. The DEA agents may be on the “good” side of the story, but the only characters who actually come across as heroes are actual Colombians.

  3. MarcoSnow says:

    You’re in for a treat with season three, Shamus. Having recently blitzed through all three seasons myself, I’d argue it’s the most focused and tightly paced of the three (once you’re a few episodes in, it’s practically impossible to stop watching). I’d be curious to hear your impressions of it.

    P.S. Not to belabor Michel’s point, but ‘Colombia’ and ‘Colombian’ should be spelled with an ‘o.’

  4. Leonardo Herrera says:

    Yes on the “Colombia/colombian” point, please.

    The funny thing is, as you mention, all the wild crazy things Pablo Escobar really did. Like, having his own private zoo (now hippos live happily in Colombia).

  5. Dreadjaws says:

    ” I have to ask my Spanish-speaking readers: How is his accent?”

    Haven’t watched the series, but looking at a few clips on Youtube, I say it’s pretty decent. It won’t fool any spanish-speaking person, but it’s not the painfully atrocious thing that was Gus Fring’s in Breaking Bad. *shivers*

    • Vermander says:

      I had already seen Wagner Moura in the Brazilian “Elite Squad” movies and initially didn’t realize that it was the same guy.

      I was initially really impressed by Pedro Pascal’s American accent since I only knew him from Game of Thrones and thought he was from Chile, but now I understand that he actually grew up in the US.

    • Jokerman says:

      Yeah, basically… you know it’s not legit, but’s it’s damn good.

    • RJT says:

      (I am not a native Spanish speaker, but my step-dad is, so my family home is now Spanish-only.) He sounds Hispanic, but not Colombian. I would have guessed Mexican.

  6. Jordan says:

    My understanding is his *Spanish* is fine, but his *Colombian* (accent)… not so much.

    • Chris Wolf says:

      My wife is a Mexican citizen. She loved the show. When I asked about his accent her reply was “I cannot remember.” So probably passable Spanish, as noted above.

  7. Joshua says:

    Well, it sounds like it avoids one of the GoT problems in that just because nudity/violence happens, doesn’t mean that there should be a quota on having some in every episode.

    • Echo Tango says:

      Personally, I felt that Game of Thrones didn’t have a quota for sex and violence, so much as they were using it as a crutch. So many stories would unfold in a messy, confusing, vague way, but there happened to be tits or knives at exactly the point in the story every episode where I was losing interest. Once I decided they were using those things to try and keep my attention instead of providing a good story and characters (the world is still pretty cool), I stopped watching. First season was very good throughout, though. :)

  8. Ani-kun says:

    There’s no sex and violence quota for the show, which means it feels like anything can happen. Maybe nobody will die this episode. Maybe a lot of people will die.

    This was my biggest issue with Miami Vice. Great show, and the first two seasons are some of the best TV I’ve ever seen (alongside other greats such as Twin Peaks), but EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN EPISODE ended basically the same way. It hit a point where I never bothered actually wondering if the characters the current episode were focusing on would survive, because they established early on that side characters ALWAYS DIE. Always.

    Other than that, amazing show… until season 4, at which point it totally jumped the shark, but eh, those first two seasons are more than worth the drop in quality later, when the show unofficially became known as The Don Johnson Show.

  9. Galad says:

    I also wondered how close to truth the Narcos script us. I seem to recall reading an article, either written by, or quoting, some surviving relative of Escobar’s, pointing out that the show gets important factual wrong. Anyone wanna do some digging to check?

    • Shamus says:

      I’ve read quite a bit, and the show makes a lot of changes for dramatic effect. Characters are merged, blended, dropped, or changed. While it’s hard to find info on Pena, I’m willing to bet they took a LOT of liberties with him to make sure he was present for so many important moments.

      As far as I can tell, the show gets the big-picture stuff right: USA policy, Colombian present, Escobar’s prison and escape, the bombings, kidnappings, etc. But they did what they wanted with the bits between those moments.

      For example, in the show Escobar walks into the senate building (or whatever it’s called) and he’s a representative for five minutes before they boot him out again. He never gets to participate in politics. I got the impression from his Wikipedia page that he was actually an active politician before they ousted him.

      • Miguk says:

        This is why I’ll stick with Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal. It would be too distracting trying to figure out what parts of the story are fictional so I can erase them from my memory.

        • Okay, doesn’t El Patron del Mal basically translate to “the dad of bad”?

          I will never be able to think of that in any other way.

          • Ander says:

            As much as it does “The Father of Evil,” but yes, you’re right.

          • methermeneus says:

            Eh, more like “the leader of evil,” or “the patron [saint] of evil/badness.” But I can see where you got that from, and, given his aspirations to be taken seriously in the political arena, I can think of no better legacy for Escobar than to remember him as “the dad of bad.”

            • Xapi says:

              “Patrón” in this context is basically “boss”, although there is an undercurrent of authoritarianism to the word.

              I wouldn’t call my boss “Patrón” unless it was tongue in cheek.

              I’m not from Colombia, so there may be a difference in how the word is used there.

      • Vermander says:

        I thought it was kind of strange that they initially had the fictional (I assume) character Horatio Carrillo as a stand in for Hugo Martinez, but then introduced the actual Hugo Martinez as a character in season 2.

  10. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The story is drawing attention to the fact that all of these fantastical things really happened, so inserting a scene of unrealistic stuff that obviously didn’t runs counter to that.

    But what if it actually did?Maybe one of those girls later wrote in her diary “And then he told us to spread all over the bed so he can sleep on us” and thats why they included that scene.

  11. Joe says:

    If you’re interested in the subject matter beyond the show, I recommend Ioan Grillo’s books El Narco and Gangster Warlords. He’s English, but has covered the whole deal for a while now. I’ve read both books twice.

  12. Henson says:

    Isn’t this the show whose location scout actually got killed in Mexico?

  13. Amstrad says:

    Wow, I’d completely forgotten about this show. I remember binging the first season, looks like its time to catch up.

  14. Erik says:

    I wonder if season 3 is worth watching.

    After Escobar’s death it does not seem like they can really go anywhere worthwhile.

    • SeekerOfThePath says:

      Give the first 10 minutes of the first episode a try. There is more to watch :)

    • Falcon02 says:

      I did find it enjoyable, it goes into the Cali Cartel’s post-Escobar demise. And while their story doesn’t quite reach the same scale of “magical realism” that Escobar did, it did have a lot of interesting/amazing things.

      And once again I wondered how much of it was literal truth and how much of it was exaggerated for effect.

      Though again some of the harder to believe details still turned out to be based in reality.

  15. D-Frame says:

    Love the show. I watched the first two seasons twice, which usually never happens.

  16. “We’re into the third season now and the show just keeps getting better.”

    In all fairness, the same was absolutely true about Game of Thrones.

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