CRITICAL MASS: Scenes from a marriage — ‘Ozark’ about family

Since its inception, and owing to the intimacy it assumes with its audience, being right there in our living rooms and bedrooms — a kind of alternate hearth — television has been much concerned with family.

From “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” through “Yellowstone,” the nuclear unit has always been central to the stories told on our (once small) personal screens. We didn’t look up to the people on TV the way we did the people in the movies — they weren’t presented larger than life, projected on a wall. They were in our midst, and sometimes they stayed there for years.

Until the balkanization occasioned, first by cable television and then by streaming, they were like collective family members. Archie Bunker was everybody’s uncle. Robert Young was everybody’s TV dad. Walter Cronkite was everybody’s voice of measured authority.

It’s not like that anymore.

We haven’t really settled on a way of writing about so-called “prestige” television series that drop a season all at once, allowing the most voracious of us to race through the episodes and know the answers to the quiz much faster than those of us who are still in the habit of consuming shows one at a time.

Bingeing seems like cheating to a great many of us, but increasingly people seem to be chewing through these series at faster and faster rates. So maybe two weeks and a couple of days is sufficient for most fans of these series to have made it through.

Those of you who aren’t all the way through the first half of the fourth (and final) season of “Ozark,” the Netflix series that premiered Jan. 21, should be advised that this piece contains mild spoilers. Few people familiar with the show will find it surprising that some major characters die and that, though much happens, the series breaks off with a cliff-hanger, and major questions about the ultimate future of the surviving characters are unresolved. Mostly these seven episodes exist to set up the final seven episodes, which will be coming later this year.

(“Kinda soon,” Jason Bateman told Jimmy Fallon. Wise heads speculate it will be after May 31, because that will make it eligible for Emmy consideration in 2023, with the current set to be adjudged this year. I guess these things matter to the people who produce prestige television series for cable.)

Another problem we have with writing about these kinds of series is that not everyone has access to Netflix, which is a subscription service, and there’s no reliable way to know how many of our readers actually pay attention to “Ozark.” Most of the people I come into contact with are aware of the show; a lot of them watch and are invested in the fortunes of Marty (Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) and their children as they go about their lives in and around Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks laundering money for, and trying to extricate themselves from , the clutches of a powerful Mexican drug cartel.

But all of us live to some degree in social media silos these days, and the covid-19 pandemic has broadened few horizons. In the circles people like me run in, people regularly talk and write about movies and television shows and books that relatively few people care much about.

Many other people still watch traditional network shows like Fox’s “9-1-1” or NBC’s “Chicago Fire” or ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” rather than a Netflix hit like “Ozark,” but the critics and the commentariat hardly ever go deep on shows like that.

This is understandable; one way to be popular is to be accessible and cheap. The fact that more people eat at McDonald’s than (to use an upscale chain restaurant that doesn’t have an Arkansas location) Morton’s doesn’t say anything about the relative quality of the products produced. McDonald’s is ubiquitous, inexpensive, casual and convenient. Morton’s is none of those things.

And Morton’s doesn’t appeal to every taste. It is not hard to understand how some right-thinking people might, all things considered, be more fond of McDonald’s than Morton’s. There are lots of people out there who have never heard of Morton’s.

Still, people who read the newspaper have at least a vague idea of ​​what a Morton’s steakhouse is — and that same population understands that there is a phenomenon called “Ozark.” And that maybe it’s pretty interesting.

Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) and Jonah Byrde (Skylar Gaertner) star in “Ozark.”
I have watched “Ozark” from the beginning; I do not know that it is a “good” show.

It is, to tax the metaphor, more a Morton’s than a McDonald’s, but it is no three-star Michelin joint. It is well-produced, brightly edited, and populated by professional empathy-snatchers. The actors’ performances are intelligent and beautifully calibrated. The storytelling is paced in such a way that we are pulled through the various twists by a dark gravity — the Byrdes are forever falling, the slippery slope having turned into a dark hole long ago — but however worried we may be by what might be an abrupt end, the ride is still exhilarating.

But is it “art”?

Of a sort, yes, but it’s also ludicrous, set in a world where the emotional physics are different from our own. All these characters are impossible people who could not exist in our atmosphere. The best way to receive it is as black comedy. Some people see it as a prequel to “Arrested Development,” the show in which Bateman plays the hard-working and responsible Michael Bluth. (Michael is Marty in witness protection, the theory goes; so what if the timelines don’t match up?)

The ways in which we use television vary—some use it as a nightlight, some as a porthole, some as an artificial friend nattering away incessantly in the background. Our viewing is occasional and intentional, which sounds disciplined if not prim, but the downside is we rarely encounter commercials or make serendipitous discoveries. For the most part, we watch what we have read about that sounds interesting. We hear about shows from The New Yorker or NPR or our friends, and we check them out.

Some of the appeal of “Ozark” has to do with its main setting in a small town in a Midwestern state. (I was disappointed to learn that principal photography for the show takes place in Georgia.) It’s a violent soap opera/crime drama crossed with a fish-out-of-water comedy. The very urban Byrde clan was uprooted from Chicago and stranded in Daniel Woodrell country, among the petty criminals and meth movers of the sticks.

The premise is that Chicago financial adviser Marty had been laundering money for the cartel for a decade; his partner from him had gotten reckless and was killed, and Marty barely escaped with his life from him after promising to launder some $8 million for the cartel in some fantastically quick time. He means to do this by opening up/taking over several businesses, including a casino and a strip club in Osage Beach, Mo.

The subtext is that the marriage is failing, the family is falling apart. Marty was watching Wendy have sex with another man on his computer courtesy of private investigator-supplied video surveillance. But the outside threat made impossible the usual dissolution of bans. They had to stay together, they had to trust each other, for the sake of survival. Crisis was crucible.

So Marty and his unfaithful and bored political consultant wife and their two kids, 15-year-old Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and 11-year-old Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) pick up and head south, and quickly become involved in their new community , both with civic movers and shakers and a couple of enterprising criminal families, the Langmores and the Snells. (And later, the Kansas City mob.)

The rhythm of the show is simple — Marty and Wendy face increasingly difficult situations which they somehow are able to talk or otherwise wheedle themselves out of. Bateman, a wonderful comedic actor with a dry and sometimes unnervingly calm mien, at times seems to possess analytical superpowers.

Over the past three seasons, Wendy has undergone a transformation from mushy liberal do-gooder to megalomaniac crime lord capable of using deadly violence in pragmatic and retributive ways. (Wendy is the one who broke bad in this series — Marty was a criminal from the beginning.)

They are helped and hindered by the kids, who effectively surrender their childhoods to the cause. Charlotte is at first the rebellious one, but now she’s content to be her mother’s help meet her. Jonah has always been a creepy kid interested in dark subjects, but in the past two seasons he has emerged as the smartest Byrde, with analytical and technical skills to rival his father’s.

Lately he has put his talents to work for the heroin distribution network of dangerous Bible-thumper Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), who has settled into the role of frenemy to the Byrdes.

Chief among the non-Byrde characters is Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), who has progressed from thieving motel maid to Marty’s protege to a force-of-nature terror. Ruth is now estranged from the Byrdes, mainly because Wendy abetted the assassination of Ruth’s lover (and Wendy’s younger brother) Ben toward the end of season three.

But Ruth still feels something like affection toward Marty, who in turn takes pride in her development even when it impinges on his larger plans. At the end of season four — spoiler alert here — Ruth seems to have become completely unhinged, determined to go off on a suicidal mission of revenge.

As finely woven as the “Ozark” narrative seems to be, one imagines that Garner’s performance and charisma have altered the original trajectory of the series. It seems that Ruth was intended to remain a supporting character throughout the series, but going into the last batch of shows — thanks in part to what might turn out to be a big mistake by the show’s creative team (Chris Mundy is the showrunner, Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams are the credited creators), a season-opening flash forward to a car wreck that might signal the end of the Byrdes — she’s the prime focus, or at least the one we root for the most.

I’m not sure I root for Marty and Wendy at all at this point — I am interested in whether they get away with it, and whether Wendy realizes her dream of becoming a Midwest-based political kingmaker, but it might be more satisfying if they end up like Tony Soprano, unavailable for sequels.

Marty’s super-competence often feels like shtick, as does his preternaturally calm affect — it’s refreshing to see him attempt a rash act in episode six of the current season, snatching a handgun from a cartel heavy only to have the man immediately slap him and take it’s back.

Wendy has returned into a monster, not just willing to have her brother removed to protect her family but willing to turn in her money-laundering son to the Securities and Exchange Commission to teach him some kind of lesson (and to ding the Snell operation) .

Charlotte is a Wendy-in-training. Jonah reminds me of Kody Smit-McPhee’s character in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”; he could plan and execute a perfect murder. He’s capable, and then could go on to live a long and blameless life.

Ruth is only one that really holds our sympathy at this point—an up-from-white-trash overachiever trying to claw her way into some sort of normal American life.

“Ozark” is like “The Godfather” crossed with “Breaking Bad”https://www.arkansasonline.com/”Better Call Saul.” It’s an over-the-top soap opera with occasional bursts of Tarantino-esque violence. It’s an astute critique of late capitalism. It is, as Ruth says of cartel lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer), “some big f****** machine, like a thresher or something.”

Ruth was marveling at the fact that Helen had been killed. She didn’t think it possible that she was somehow outside the realm of human experience, like a god, or a TV character.

E-mail: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com

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