Friday, September 22, 2017

The drug war from Missouri to Colombia

I'm not going to go into a history of the War on Drugs (capitalization required because it's official. And important. And because it makes it feel even more stupid.) We all know about it. We all know it's pointless. We all know Jefferson Beauregard (not a racist) Sessions is going to spend millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours pursuing it because it's a primo example of the usual GOP approach to problems: it only seems like it hasn't worked because we haven't been hitting our head against that wall hard enough! But I am going to look at it indirectly from the perspective of a couple Netflix series that we've recently indulged in.

A couple weeks ago, Tricia suggested that we watch Narcos, which has been a relatively heralded member of Netflix's original production lineup. I've seen people talk about it occasionally on the board and it seemed like something I might get to at some point, although I'm pretty well versed in the story of Pablo Escobar. But I'd also added Ozark to our queue because of another brief mention on the board and that had a more immediate appeal, so I suggested that instead. It was a good choice, since we burned right through the first season in a matter of days. Given that that was over, we decided to try out the original idea and sat down to watch the first couple episodes of Narcos last night.

Ozark can rather easily be compared to Breaking Bad, in that it's a take on the "fish out of water" premise, in which a "normal" guy gets involved in situations that are utterly foreign to him; in this case, delving into criminal enterprises that go way beyond simply shuffling money between accounts. Indeed, my first very mild criticism of the series was that bringing the nuclear family along to remotest Missouri was bringing along a rather hoary Hollywood trope ("How do Billy and Susie react to not having access to Starbucks?!") that we could all probably dispense with by now. But what made that not even a concern was both the complexity of the story and the performance, surprisingly, of Jason Bateman.

Unlike Walter White, Bateman's Marty Byrde isn't a person who had a burning ambition to do something better with his life. Byrde was doing exactly what he wanted: working the numbers. Similarly, the rest of the family wasn't really aspiring to something better (except Wendy's (Laura Linney) fling with another lawyer) or had any need to prove themselves in the way that Skyler and Walt, Jr. did. Walter's disruption of their life didn't happen immediately and in some ways actually improved their situation in the early stages. This was part of the lurking transformation of both Walter and the story as a whole which was the masterstroke of Vince Gilligan's storytelling. Ozark, OTOH, is a huge disruption to the almost entirely blissful complacency of upper class life that the Byrds had in Chicago. It's basically the converse of the Beverly Hillbillies (Don't call'em "rednecks"...) and much more funny. The family is dropped into a situation that isn't a setup for all of the "look how strange bass-ackwards Missouri really is." It's more of a story about how quickly they can adapt to a new situation because their lives, quite literally, depend on it.

That's where Marty is highlighted because his entire existence is about analysis and finding the best route to maximize the outcome. While he, like the rest of the family, is focused on survival, he's also compelled by instinct to find the best possible result, which involves treating everyone and everything around him as an asset to be exploited; at least until that kernel of human kindness breaks through and makes him start caring about a couple of those assets. I'd long ago dismissed Bateman as a routine straight man in a bunch of disposable comedies (Horrible Bosses, et al.) But in Ozark (which he's also a producer of and directed multiple episodes of the first season), he's proven to be much more. Marty's an accountant and, as such, displays the often-typical difficulty that guys who love numbers have in relating to other humans. He's pretty stone-faced... until it comes time to make a deal. Like most guys who know numbers, Marty also knows that everyone has a price and it's usually the guy equipped with that instinct that will make the best deal. Bateman is able to show deep emotions when he interacts with his family, but is able to switch back to that stone-faced, deal-making accountant at a moment's notice because that's his calling and it's how that family that he feels deep emotion for is going to survive. The moment when he witnessed his wife's lover landing on the pavement and we could just watch his face process the shock and horror and switch right to a realization of what must have happened and how his best route was to neither react nor be present at that moment was priceless.

Linney, OTOH, has a far more emotional role, since her grounding isn't in her career but in the fact that she's been looking for an emotional attachment that the detached Marty hasn't been able to supply. Their interaction provides another display of emotion in that Marty admits that Wendy has wounded him and implies that he's basically keeping her around in order to provide some semblance of normalcy for the kids. But he also demonstrates that he really doesn't understand his wife of 17 years when he decides that a PI video of her and her lover might be his inroad back into a deeper connection. At the same time, she struggles with the fact that she agreed to this path that puts them all in danger, while still yearning to be her own person AND try to reunite with her husband for the sake of normalcy for the kids (and perhaps more.) The fact that they decide to just bite the bullet at one point and fully include the kids in the process of their criminal activities rather than continuing to dance around it is just the topper. It's wonderfully complex acting and storytelling and that, along with an excellent supporting cast, makes Ozark both a proper descendant of Breaking Bad and very much its own thing. The weird, old dying guy in the basement; the ruthlessly ambitious assistant; the straight-laced lodge manager who's obviously attracted to Marty; the obsessive and identity-conflicted FBI agent; the family- and tradition-obsessed drug dealing locals; all of these characters provide a density and texture to the story that made for enthralling viewing from the first episode to the last. That many elements in play also leave countless opportunities for where to take the story next and which parts should be emphasized or de-emphasized, in turn, makes for very smart writing.

Narcos, OTOH, wasn't quite as compelling. Granted, we've only seen two episodes, but we were eager to watch more after seeing only one of Ozark. Our reaction to Narcos was relatively ambivalent. Part of it was the storytelling approach. Narcos feels like a dramatized documentary to some degree. In most cases, I'd really rather just watch the documentary about Pablo Escobar's life, since truth is often just as strange, if not stranger, than fiction and one risks burdening the story with irrelevant elements in an attempt to find people that the audience can supposedly relate to. I had the same problem with Hidden Figures. Just watching the basic facts and interviews with the women who'd lived through that time would have been emotionally compelling enough for me. Adding on everything else was really just unnecessary gloss to a story that was already extremely interesting.

But the other problematic aspect is that there's no one particularly fascinating about the disclaimer targets in Narcos. The based-on-an-actual person lead, Wagner Moura, as Pablo is fine. Those of us familiar with the history know that Escobar had a rather outsized personality that he expressed in a variety of ways. But the "good guy" lead, Boyd Holbrook, as Steve Murphy, gives us nothing. He's a crusading DEA agent (yawn) who does a sheepish "my friends set me up" approach to his future wife (yawn) and then delivers the "don't treat me like the FNG" moment (yawn) when the first direct attempt to go after the Medellin cartel takes place. That's cardboard. It's routine. There's nothing to work with there that isn't starkly obvious in the character's 20 minutes of screen time. Compounding that is the producers' and directors' apparent love of spectacle. This is a story about drugs and violence, so they're going to show you as much drugs, violence, and sex as they can cram into an episode, whether it makes a story or not. The sex angle is particularly notable, since the second episode had titillation at its most obvious.

In the course of a few minutes, there's Pablo screwing a reporter who likes being in his limelight, DEA agent Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) screwing one of his prostitute CIs, and DEA agent Murphy screwing his wife. Oh, and a gratuitous shot of the MS-19 people celebrating a minor victory. I mean, fine. Sex happens, yo. I'll be the last person to object to its inclusion in a story because that's what humans do, often with each other. But this was utterly Skinemax in its approach: nothing but a flash of tits in all three (and a half) instances and the reporter apologizing by offering up her ass to Escobar. The strangest one was Murphy, since the realization that there's street violence in Bogotà in no way required us to see them doing anything in bed but sleeping. The other two scenarios at least offered up story reasons for having sex in the form of Pablo cheating on his wife and feeling the tug of fame and Peña having a more personal relationship with a CI and possibly displaying the route he took to make her a CI. But all three of them in rapid succession felt canned, as if the director decided "OK. It's getting a little slow here. We better do some titillation to keep the audience both interested and aware of the fact that this show is EDGY. To the EXTREME!"

The end result is that I don't care about Murphy, I don't care about Peña (even though he's the Red Viper), and I care about Escobar only so much as I know that his life is actually interesting. But, again, I could just watch a half-dozen documentaries to get the interesting parts, rather than waiting for them to draw them out over some dramatic framework that also includes a bunch of other people I don't care about.

Ozark had me from episode one. This was an interesting story, with interesting characters, and with actors I either already respected (Linney; really good in The Truman Show, Mystic River, and Kinsey, if you've never seen them) or who instantly excelled in roles I would have never anticipated from them (Bateman.) I'm looking forward to the recently announced season two. Narcos I could give or take right now. If Tricia wants to watch more of it, I'll try, but my initial suspicion is that there just won't be enough story to keep me interested, especially when there's so much other good TV that could take its place.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Just a little rain on the parade

Rain is on my mind. Not like Harvey rain. This ain't Michigan State's impending debacle. (Tangent: I've seen people on the Web blaming Houston's zoning regulations, or lack thereof, for the flooding. These people apparently haven't registered the concept of 50 inches of rain falling in a few days. 50 inches! 50! I don't care if your zoning regulations say: "Only one building, wetlands, and a dirt road per 10 acres." 50(!) inches of rain is going to flood ANYWHERE. /tangent) But some small rain on Michigan's latest gridiron campaign, beginning tomorrow, is clouding my thoughts.

I've been having a tough time getting excited for this season. My fandom has been slipping away for the last decade, mostly because I can't justify the existence of the NCAA any longer. Even if I was aware of the issue when the Fab 5 were complaining about it in 1992, the fact that an increasing number of billions of dollars is being made on major college sports and none of it is going to the athletes is something that just hangs over me when I watch the game. Nowhere else in society do you have adults be expected to put their skills to use and be explicitly forbidden from being compensated for them. At a minimum, you call that exploitation. At a maximum, there are much darker parallels to be drawn, especially given that the majority of those athletes are African-American. The fact that the only professional outlets for those skills in the US collude with the NCAA to deny those athletes access to those paying jobs for three years (in the case of football, 1 in basketball) past the age when most of them have legal standing as adults just makes the crime, and the associated hypocrisy, even worse.

You can add to that the issue of concussions. American football is a violent game, full stop. It's why so much protective gear is worn. Even sports that are considered contenders for the title holder of violence, like rugby, don't require so much gear because the game isn't predicated on extremely powerful collisions. Those collisions lead to concussions and I find that when I'm watching a game these days, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what those kids are doing to themselves in the name of getting permission to be paid for what they're already really good at.

These feelings are in stark contrast to those of Michigan's current coach, who feels that football embodies everything that's good about life. In truth, no one else that I recall can so accurately be said to "live football." Every day, during almost every waking moment (he does have a family), one could make a fair argument that Jim Harbaugh is thinking about football and how to be better at it than he was the day before. My slow alienation from the game has reached its pinnacle right around the time that most around me, energized by the dynamo of his personality and the success that Harbaugh has maintained throughout his career, are more enthusiastic than ever about what Michigan could accomplish on the field. But I try to blot out the stain that is the NCAA and the scourge that is the threat of CTE and think in similarly positive terms and realize that I just don't share the faith anymore.

Brian did his usual excellent review (I can't call anything that exceeds 50K words a "summary") of the team and his expectations for the season and came down at the 9-3/10-2 mark. You know how many of those I've seen in my life? 12. Two more at 9-4, a 9-2-1, a 10-1-1, 5 10-3s (including the last two years), and 3 11-2s. There were a couple 10-1s, an 11-1, and a 10-0-1 in my lifetime but I was too young to know what was going on. I've seen a lot of apparently successful seasons for Michigan that, in many ways, don't really add up to a whole lot. I mean, yeah, a lot of Rutgers fans would kill to have the program that Michigan has, but their first problem is that they're Rutgers fans, so I don't really care about that. I just imagine sitting in front of a game, mildly irritated that these kids are sacrificing their health and bodies to make millions of dollars for someone else, and think about the impending 10-3 season and... I just get bored.

Do I really want to see Michigan slaughter Rutgers again? Do I really want to see the ritual sacrifice of Cincinnati or the slugfest with Wisconsin or the inevitable loss to Ohio State again? Do I really want to be implicitly supporting a system that denies these kids the opportunity to make a living off of their natural talent and developed skills, unlike 99% of the rest of humanity? Make no mistake. These guys are professional athletes. The only thing not professional about it is that they're not getting paid. Having recently been looking for jobs in a sphere where my only experience is of a volunteer or self-employed nature, I can tell you what most employers think about the "professional" standing of someone who's never received a paycheck. These kids are basically modern corporate America's favorite class: unpaid interns, who are supposed to be eternally grateful to the monolith that tells them that their time and effort aren't worth a dime without the guidance that the monolith provides. Insert Kubrick's giant black slab conveying the thought of tool use (violent tool use, incidentally) and it's kind of hard to deny the imagery.

I still enjoy the game, to a certain degree. I was watching Indiana and Ohio State play last night with an appreciation for what was happening on the field (and utter amazement at the modernity of about half of Mike Debord's offense; I'll never forgive 1999.) And despite a similar appreciation for Harbaugh's gung-ho personality and the dynamism that he brings to some parts of the offense, I find myself unable to join the Harbaughdyssey because I don't see the breakthrough that so many friends and others I respect insist is taking place. I don't see Michigan contending for national prominence on a regular basis because I don't see Michigan getting past OSU to win the division or go to the conference title game, which means 10-2/9-3 and some irrelevant bowl in Florida on an annual basis. Incidentally, the last irrelevant bowl game that Michigan participated in cost TE Jake Butt millions of dollars as his draft stock plummeted when he injured his knee during said game. "Come to Michigan! Do lasting damage to your body for free, because it's the only way to (hopefully) get paid for what you can do with that body!"

I look at that last paragraph and I feel mildly ashamed that I'm even contextualizing my apathy toward the record that Michigan might achieve, given the other concerns that I can't shake. I mean, certainly my interest in the game is grounded in what Michigan can achieve in it. I'm a fan. I have been since I was six years old. I could go on being just like all the other fans who love the game and all the kids who play it for that same, simple love. But I wonder. I wonder if that new coach who's supposedly the greatest thing to ever grace the sideline of Michigan Stadium (I've lived through six now; admittedly a ridiculously low number compared to many programs) is really enough to make me think that being a fan for one more 10-3 season is worth supporting the economic injustice or watching people risk the rest of their lives on a game that was probably a bad idea taken to extremes in the first place. I remain a fan, but I struggle with the idea of continuing to be a fan. Do I step out of the rain or keep walking to where I'm going?