‘Narcos’ Is Absolutely Addicting

Nov. 15, 2016, 1:17 p.m.

Like many teens waiting to ship off to college this summer, I decided to spend my time engaging in the wonderful phenomenon of binge-watching. After marathoning several different TV series, and with a week left before NSO, I vigorously debated whether I should start one last show before move-in. In the end, I gave in to my guilty pleasure and clicked on the “Narcos” pilot on the Netflix Originals page. I’m glad I did.

“Narcos” is a dramatized account of the American drug wars, with seasons one and two focusing on the international hunt for kingpin Pablo Escobar. His extraordinary rise to power, the trials and tribulations of running a multinational narcotics empire, and his numerous run-ins with gangs and government agents alike are all captured through captivating storytelling and a magnificent recreation of war-torn Colombia in the 1980s.

The cast of “Narcos”  does not settle for merely bringing the atmosphere of late 20th century Colombia to life; they embody the personal struggles of each individual character to define their actions on the spectrum of good and evil, right and wrong. Wagner Moura’s depiction of anti-hero Escobar is intense, even terrifying at times. The anger, rage, and cold cunning he displays while running his vast criminal empire is starkly contrasted with the restraint and love shown in his interactions with his dear family. Moura does the impossible: He successfully humanizes one of history’s most despicable scoundrels. Pedro Pascal does a phenomenal job portraying DEA Agent Javier Peña as a hard-headed, charismatic cop that delights in taking down bad guys nearly as much as he enjoys sleeping with women. He clearly expresses his obsession with destroying Escobar’s operation, but he also understands that the law has its limits. Finally, Raúl Méndez plays Colombian President César Gaviria with historical conviction and a clear exposition of the burdens hanging over the struggling politician. In attempting to wrestle with both the drug traffickers and other government officials, it is clear that he faces no solution without its flaws, and no system without significant corruption.

Unlike many shows that progress from season to season ad nauseam until funding or viewership dies out, “Narcos” has the benefit of a single structured plot arc, contained in only two seasons. This ensures that “Narcos” doesn’t have to manufacture tension to prolong plot, and it can keep its real world story confined to a realistic timeline. It makes everything feel alive and honest, in a way that most TV shows can’t.

It’s an honesty that even extends to the show’s use of language. When the actors should be speaking Spanish — which is most of the time — they do. This decision means that viewers like myself might be forced to read subtitles, but it contributes so much to the richness and uniqueness of the program.

Even if the language isn’t always perfect, “Narcos” occupies a unique niche in Netflix’s ever-expanding lineup: a foreign-language program designed for American audiences. Native speakers of Spanish will notice some idiosyncrasies with certain accents. For one, Wagner Moura is Brazilian, and wasn’t fluent in Spanish before this show. In fact, the cast hails from all over Latin America, so to the educated listener, there may be some inconsistencies that could break the suspension of disbelief. But it is still a vast and profound improvement over a lesser show, where the cast of this Colombian-set drama would all be speaking English.

The pilot episode begins with a description of magical realism, defined as events taking place in a realistic setting “too strange to believe.” And indeed, the ambitions and powers of Escobar and narcotraficantes like him are incredible to comprehend in the context of our modern expectations for law and order, stability and morality. The utter insanity of the drug wars, the senseless violence, the sheer brutality of conflict, and the astonishing wealth of those reigning over an empire with unstable foundations are masterfully captured by the series.

“Narcos” itself has a magic of its own, an anomaly in an environment of mainstream programming. It doesn’t pander to its audience by bastardizing the dialogue into English and salivating over the successes of the Drug War. Instead, it puts forth a narrative that is often critical of both the Colombian and the American response. It combines personal drama with fascinating history to form a multifaceted story that is so moving because it is grounded in reality. I think any viewer would be just as instantly hooked as I was, so I wholeheartedly recommend adding the show to your watchlist. “Narcos” season three is a ways off, but I can already say that I am desperately waiting for my next hit.

Contact Kyle Dixon at kyledix ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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