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Narcos - Season 1 Review - "Welcome to the Medellín Cartel"

Spoiler Warning! Proceed at your own risk!

2015 has been a good year so far for Netflix, because even though House of Cards Season 3 may have been a disappointment, it was still a fairly strong season that I quickly binged through in a weekend. Marvel's Daredevil was released a few months later was the best thing to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on TV so far, offering up its own dark corner of New York City, and having recently finished Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it really took me by surprise as to just how good this comedy was. Bloodline, Netflix's dark family drama, may be slow paced at times but so far, I'm enjoying it a lot. I've only seen the first few episodes of Orange is the New Black but have heard good things about the show and the same with Sense8, which I haven't started yet. And the good news, is that it's safe to say that the first season of Narcos, following the rise of Colombian Drug Lord Pablo Escobar, is going to be another one, and even though it may not be 100% perfect, it's still a very impressive ten episodes of television that I ploughed through over the course of a weekend, serving up an addictive (yes, I went there), way to spend my last couple of days in France when it was released.

The show chronicles both the hunt for Escobar at the same time as his rise, learning how the DEA Agents, Murphy and Pena, played by recognisable faces Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal from Gone Girl and Game of Thrones respectively, try to stop Escobar from gaining power, battling against corruption and the sheer weight of money and resources at every turn, which is no small challenge when you consider that he was regarded as the wealthiest criminal in history, and bears the title "The King of Cocaine". Starting off with a flashfoward sequence which takes eight episodes for the main storyline to catch up to, we're thrust right into the thick of things with the main action, and through lots of voiceover provided from Murphy's character, Narcos creates a lot of room to explore in this series, offering an immersive atmosphere and fascinating cinematography to provide a stunning backdrop to this series, which remains entrancing throughout, and the show grips us even though that due to its origin in true events, most of us will know the endgame before it begins, and for those who don't, the answers lie a quick Google away.

The show itself continues to raise the stakes and as the episodes roll on, with the show getting more and more intense as it proceeds. The real events in play here are blended with a chilling use of archive footage to create a fantastic atmosphere, and coupled with the stunning cinematography, you really get a sense for the period setting that feels real and authentic, coupled with some suitable atmospheric music choices. Taking place over several years we get to see the escalation of Escobar's reign as the show isn't afraid to go into very dark places, and doesn't shy away from suicide bombings on planes, murdering of innocent women and children, and there's no question about it - it's horrific and leaves a pretty big impact, with the show's creators not afraid to shy away from adapting the true stories in all their gory detail.

The acting is strong throughout the series, with the biggest asset to Narcos easily being the role of Escobar himself, played by Wagner Moura, who certainly makes his presence felt with plenty of on-screen intimidation and scenery-chewing. There are a few scenes that try to make Escobar sympathetic, even though you know what he's capable of, and Moura nails these just as well as he does the character's more unhinged moments, meaning that as a result it's just as compelling to watch Escobar's journey as it is Murphy and Pena's, and we're never really feeling that one story is weaker than the other. However, despite this, there's not enough forward growth and movement in character for my liking, as Murphy, through voiceovers, is always taking about how the hunt for Escobar affected him, changed him so he's like a different person, but it never feels like that's the case over the course of the first season. However, because it is only the first season, and the show has been renewed for a second, there's plenty of room to explore both Murphy and Pena going forward, and it will be interesting to see what happens when we return given that Columbia will be involved in what is essentially civil war at this point.

The series itself gives an insight into the manipulative tactics and tough decisions used by both sides during the war. For example, in one of the episodes, An over-eager follower of Escobar is dispatched to blow up a plane which will contain one of the Drug Lord's enemies, believing that he will be simply recording a conversation. Whilst the bomb works, and the plane goes up in smokes, the target isn't on board, thanks to the efforts of Murphy, and Escobar just earned more attention from the rest of the world than he previously had done. Meanwhile, Murphy and Pena just make as many terrible decisions without favourable consequences, making a change from what you'll find on most of the crime shows on network TV where you're used to watching the good guys winning time and time again. Of course, It's not just these two characters who make poor decisions as well, but so to do their higherups in the Government in both the USA and Columbia, and not everyone makes it through their poor choices alive. You also have to take into account though that the show borrows heavily from true events, for example, if you weren't a fan of how the season wrapped up in the final episode it was because it's 1992, and Escobar doesn't die until 1993 (and I'm not even going to put a spoiler alert on that one, for obvious reasons - it happened over 20 years ago), so we can't get the resolution for at least another season, which is probably, given the rate that the show ploughed through the majority of Escobar's timeline already, the only other season that this show will get because I don't see the show having a long run of five seasons or more. That said, I could be wrong though, as there's potential there.

Some things that don't work out quite as well as they should do, and one of those is the amount of characters involved. Whilst at its core, the show focuses on Escobar, Murphy and Pena, there are many more secondary characters that are introduced and then quickly discarded when it would have been better to flesh out their roles or exclude them from the game entirely. Yes, some may be there for historical accuracy and to tie into true events, but other times, it doesn't feel like it's needed at all. Maybe it would have been better if the show hadn't progressed through the years as quickly as it had done? This would have meant a slower pace, true, but would have been able to explore more characters in greater depth.

Despite the anticlimatic ending that follows a mostly action packed finale, and the cheesy final voiceover, as well as the other problems that Narcos suffered from that I've mentioned above, it's still a strong entry into list of Netflix's original series content and I'll happily return for a second season where hopefully things can only get better. Thanks to some good acting and a fascinating subject matter, which is well worth reading up on, (like I did after finishing the series), the show, standing at only 10 episodes long, is perfect for checking out before the fall season hits at the end of September, and if you start now, you should easily have enough time to be caught up before the regular network shows hit.

Overall Season Verdict: B+
+Hard hitting action.
+Wagner Moura's portrayal of Pablo Escobar.
+Use of archive footage.
+Uses historical events well...
-...But is also limited by them.
-Too many characters introduced and then discarded.
-An over-reliance on voice-overs.
-Anticlimatic ending to the first season.

What did you think of the first season of Netflix's Narcos? What do you consider your favourite episodes? Do you have any highlights from the first season? And will you be sticking around for Season 2? Let me know in the comments section below. If you're not already up to date, the first season can be streamed in its entirety from Netflix now.

About the Author - Milo MJ
Milo is an Arsenal FC supporter and loves TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Justified, The 100, The Americans and Person of Interest. He reviews Black Sails, Childhoods End, Da Vinci's Demons, Hell on Wheels, The Knick, Manhattan, Murder in the First, Narcos and Veep for Spoiler TV as well as books, films and games for his own blog The Fictional Hangout and contributes to comic reviews on a weekly basis for All-Comic.
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