Modern TV audiences are addicted to drugs. We love to see how they screw everything up, drive people to desperation and death, and — perhaps most of all — how they bring nobodies to the seat of power.
Breaking Bad, one of the most popular TV series in the last five years, outlined a high school teacher’s descent into the meth trade in the American Southwest. The illicit drug trade is what landed our heroine in the can in Orange Is The New Black. The Wire (still probably one of the best shows ever to grace the small screen) revolved around Baltimore drug kingpins and the cops that kept them in line. Even housewives can be drug dealers, as we learned from Weeds. The list goes on, and its newest addition is the new Netflix original series Narcos.
Narcos, from Netflix and Gaumant International Television (the studio behind NBC’s Hannibal), details the real-life rise and fall of the Medellín Cartel and its implacable leader, Pablo Escobar, played by Wagner Moura.
The Medellín Cartel, based in the central Andean city of Medellín, Colombia, is credited with founding the largest and most profitable cocaine trade in history, netting hundreds of millions of dollars per week for its kingpin and supplying more than 80 percent of the cocaine in the United States throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
After a decade-long rise to power — including gaining a seat in Colombian parliament — Escobar came under the scrutiny of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. Like a little kid with a magnifying glass, the U.S. government angled its laser toward Escobar, pressuring Colombia to extradite him. He responded by releasing a reign of terror over Medellín, leading to thousands of deaths, including that of a Columbian presidential candidate. Escobar was killed by police in 1993.
The pilot of Narcos situates the viewer in Colombia and Miami in 1989, at the height of Escobar’s reign, fame and the manhunt that would ultimately bring him down. The narrator is Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), an American DEA agent embedded in Columbia, working with a homegrown local police unit to hunt the cartel’s highest ranks and assassinate them. We see their process: tapping foot-long brick satellite phones and triangulating targets with pre-GPS word-of-mouth mapping. In the opening sting, they’re after Poison; a “sicario,” or hit man; on his way to the red light district to meet some associates. No spoilers, but let’s just say nobody will be frequenting that club for a while.
Next, we are taken back in time for a brief overview of Escobar’s rise. As he builds his empire from the gutter to the sky, we follow him through all the murky details. The camera pans close to the ground, giving the surroundings immediacy and grit. The foundation for this operation is solid, natural, fertile and dirty.
We are in the pit with the dead cocaine workers gunned down by the Chilean military, and in the lab among the rats — not the white coats — when the scientific community discovers just how powerful cocaine can be. We are addicted. We are in the car with Escobar when he is stopped by the cops, and inches from his face when he strikes his first deal. We are with him, complicit.
In moments, Narcos watches like a documentary. Pablo Escobar was indeed a real person, and this story is based on true events. The introduction of Escobar’s timeline begins with stock footage of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power and tyranny and narrated facts about the U.S.’s involvement. Murphy implies that this series of events laid the groundwork for the rise of the kingpin the U.S. government was so eager to kill just fifteen years later. Later, Murphy calls out the U.S. government again, noting they they only started paying attention to a drug and a war that was killing thousands when it threatened the economy and their own wallets. A clever shot of U.S. businessmen passing around a jar of jelly beans needs little narration, but the statement on patriotism and morality that follows ties the pilot up in a bow that draws you right through to episode two. Narcos is as addicting as Escobar’s cocaine.
The first season (10 episodes) of Narcos is now streaming on Netflix. Less than a week after its Aug. 28 premier, Netflix renewed it for a second season, in addition to renewing House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, Orange Is the New Black, Marco Polo, Bloodline, Daredevil, Between, and Sense8.