Netflix’s new series Narcos begins with a quote regarding the birth of magical realism, and its point of emphasis reveals quite a bit about the series it precedes. “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe,” the quote reads. Then, after a brief pause for dramatic effect, the quote adds, “There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”
While the ostensible purpose of the quote appears to be to illustrate the strangeness of the rise to power of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), what the words ignore about the genre they describe says just as much about the interests of the show. Although the line isn’t exactly wrong about the origins of magical realism, it disregards the style’s debts to the folk tales of the Latin American people. In a 1982 New York Times profile of Gabriel Garcia Marquez , the Colombian author of what’s arguably the archetypical work of magical realism, he describes the “fables [and] family legends” told by his grandmother which were the “source” of his “magical, superstitious and supernatural view of reality.” Thus, Marquez situates the genre as indebted to everyday townspeople such as her, whereas Narcos credits its existence to figures with the power and influence of Escobar. Through this misattribution, Narcos reveals where the interests of its creators lie (at least through the first five episodes), and the focus highlights a deep flaw in the show’s efforts towards “realism.”
Not that it doesn’t strive in that direction. Although the narrative is ostensibly guided by the voiceovers of DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), its real propulsion comes from the documentary footage interspersed throughout the opening episodes. They help to situate the connections between Narcos and its real-life inspirations, and they also provide welcome reminders of the historical events which define the show’s chronology. Certainly, despite (and perhaps because of) Narcos being based on events “too strange to believe,” much of it feels rigorously grounded in history, and the images of Ronald Reagan and the real Pablo Escobar help to hammer this point home.
But perhaps even more so than the documentary footage, the attempts towards a holistic look at “what really happened” are most propelled by the show’s omniscient narrative style. In spite of the singular narrative voice coming from a DEA agent, Narcos also provides the viewpoints of Escobar and his cronies (the show’s titular characters), the politicians, military members and informants. In this way, Narcos resembles the approach to dramatizing the War on Drugs taken by creator David Simon in The Wire (or the one Simon takes most recently, this time to presenting the issue of urban public housing, in Show Me a Hero).
Yet where Simon does a remarkable job of truly providing a range of perspectives on the topics he depicts — showing how they affect an array of people — creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro seem limited by the ultimately narrow range of their interests. While the points of view described above do provide a certain feeling of omniscience for the series, it’s the perspective the showrunners miss which undermine the inroads Narcos makes towards a holistic account. Two specific incidents come to mind: the rape of Helena (Adria Arjona) in “The Sword of Simón Bolivar” and the torture of the priest in “There Will be a Future.” In both of these acts of violence, perpetrated by the show’s two major opposing forces (the narcos and the DEA, respectively), the assailants are shown committing their crimes, but the victims’ anguish isn’t sufficiently explored. Both scenes show the sort of thing which 24 and Game of Thrones have been excoriated for in the past (i.e. excessive depiction and glorification of rape and torture), but Brancato, Bernard, and Miro don’t seem to have learned anything from the criticism. Although the brutality of these scenes comes across as yet another push towards “realism,” it winds up feeling more like an excuse to show the gruesome behavior onscreen, and without examining how it affects victims.
The omniscience is also undermined by the contrast in charisma between the DEA agents and the narcos. Despite Murphy serving as the show’s narrator and getting to speak more than anyone, the viewer never gets to know him quite like Escobar. Moura’s charisma in the role overwhelms Holbrook’s presence to the point where he simply isn’t all that engaging as a character. His partner Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) makes for a slightly more interesting presence on the side of the DEAs, but even he pales in comparison to the flamboyant José Gacha (Luis Guzmán). As a result, the efforts Narcos makes towards evenhandedness are undermined by the imbalance between the interest generated by the two sides.
But more than an engaging presence from the DEAs, what’s missing most from Narcos is a more well-rounded account of how Escobar’s reign affected Colombia. Of course, comparing any writer to David Simon doesn’t exactly seem fair, but he remains the gold standard for the sort of thing Brancato, Bernard, and Miro appear to be aiming for. In the first half of the season, as their mischaracterization of magical realism highlights, they don’t quite hit their mark.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.