A wealthy family relocates a money laundering scheme to the Ozarks in a smart, sharp drama that engages with prestige tropes but never quite falls into their trap
Playing Michael Bluth was a lot harder than it looked. As the lead of “Arrested Development,” Jason Bateman had to be a despicable straight man with delusions of his own goodness and sympathetic, as the only character capable of feeling pain in a family of narcissists. Bateman rose admirably to the task, providing a grounded contrast for the show’s array of weirdos. But outside of that show’s context, his style has seemed either too funny or not funny enough. “The Switch,” in which Bateman plays a jealous ex-boyfriend who switches out donor sperm with his own modest emission, plays at the razor’s edge of comedy and tragedy — and ineptly uses a montage to escape its own premise, while Bateman’s character challenges the audience to feel empathy for him.
“Ozark,” executive produced by showrunner Chris Mundy, Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams (who both worked on the Ben Affleck film “The Accountant”) as well as Bateman himself, is Bateman’s best work since “Arrested Development.” Because “Ozark” gives him so much more latitude than that sitcom’s careful joke construction, it may be his strongest work yet. The taut thriller veers close toward storytelling pitfalls that other prestige dramas have made — strippers, money laundering, infidelity, a sex tape, bags of cash, barrels of acid — but deftly avoids falling into the bleak soup of bloated streaming dramas about a tortured male soul. “Ozark” so carefully guides the audience through the story that it is one of the most compulsively watchable debuts of the year — a crime story that is part-thriller, part-caper, and endlessly surprising.
Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago wealth manager, who we meet on the day he learns his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), has been cheating on him. In a sequence that reveals a lot about the strange depths of his character, he mulls over the information, chewing on it with agonizing slowness where others would erupt into emotion. The same day, a scheme gone bad catches up with the company. He and his business parter Bruce (Josh Randall) have been laundering millions of dollars for a Mexican drug cartel, working with a lieutenant named Del (Esai Morales). Someone’s been skimming off the top; in anger, Del kills everyone. When he’s advancing on Marty with a gun pointed at his head, Marty begs for his life with frantic, pathetic salesmanship, taking a crumpled pamphlet out of his pocket and pitching a scheme to recoup the stolen money, and hundreds of millions more, out of the “cash-rich” Ozarks.
There’s something comical about transplanting a privileged family to the rural mountains, and “Ozark” plays with that — cutting so close to the characters that it can see both their struggles and the existential humor of their situation. Nothing goes quite according to plan — but at the same time, there is no frustratingly incompetent character constantly gumming up the works; if the kids make mistakes, they learn from them. Linney doesn’t have much to do in the first installment, but as is appropriate for an actor of her caliber, she begins to shine with fierce intensity as Wendy grows more aware of the threats facing the family. (No one can deliver the word f—k with as much gorgeous intensity as Linney can; “Ozark” gives her several well-earned opportunities.) The Byrde marriage is in a state of collapse, but rather than expend extra energy on it, Wendy and Marty both have too much to do — uprooting their lives in 48 hours, buying a house in Missouri, settling down the kids, and hiding a massive amount of cash. They are not exactly partners, but there’s a surprising chemistry in how over each other they both are, at least at this point in time.
Most refreshing of all, “Ozark” is smart, well-crafted, and says something. Marty begins the show with voiceover monologue that is part sales pitch and part free association about what money means to a person that has a kind of haunting quality to it, as people start to kill each other over some millions of dollars. Marty and Bruce look at office space near Trump Tower before Marty moves to Missouri, where they are floating in a sea of rural poverty whose residents inherently distrust outsiders. Marty begins to act erratically — talking to ghosts, repeating himself, looking over the edge of a cliff and calculating his insurance payout — but the show posits these occurrences less as the musings of his tortured soul and more as the toll of a week of sleep deprivation. As the season progresses, Marty meets the head of a local family of crooks — 19-year-old Ruth (Julia Garner, who TV fans will remember from “The Americans”), a skinny blonde doyenne who keeps her family in line with a gun and an absolutely fearless imperiousness.
“Ozark” does not feel predictable or slow, and if it does suffer a bit from a very gray color palette and a reliance on prestige tropes, which both presumably signify “seriousness,” it comes together under Bateman’s disarming and deceptively complex performance as Marty. He’s not sympathetic, but he’s not a villain either; he’s not good, but he’s not as bad as he could be. In his calculated, failing inertia — his resignation to his own failed state — he is one of the most relatable characters on television this year. He is not even striving as much as he’s just surviving — treading water, in the deep Ozark Lake.