Review: ‘Surviving the Cartel’ Season 1

Surviving the Cartel Review - Ely Bams Crime Series

A sprawling crime epic requires a jigsaw puzzle approach. The wall should be tight; all pieces must fit. Think of Martin Scorsese as a Puzzle Master. He identifies bold colors and various shades that link everything together. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing enhances the lead performances. The cinematography boosts Scorsese’s direction. The needle-drop selections complement Schoonmaker’s narrative rhythm. Scorsese separates filmmaking concepts and imagines how they align with the thematic premise. It’s a whole vibe. Every jigsaw piece pops in place; you won’t find a stray under the table. Similarly, crime sagas like Narcos and Yellowstone value those oddly-shaped jigsaw pieces, primarily because the work as a whole would look strange without them. You can’t show off a 1000-piece project that’s missing foundational fits. With that said, Surviving the Cartel season 1 looks like a mostly-assembled jigsaw puzzle. Creator Ely Bams has everything in place and yet various pieces clearly don’t connect.

Surviving the Cartel season 1 revolves around Alejandro Cardona (Gabriel Agüero), a Silicon Valley CEO who assumes control of his father’s cartel organization in Mexico. “The Pope” upsets the old guard with his new school mentality; he disrupts extortion schemes and refuses to distribute Fentanyl. Meanwhile, a farmer named Carlos Ortega (Rey Cantu) begins a new life after a familial tragedy. In subplots, rival cartels keep an eye on Alejandro’s movements while the DEA tries to understand the big picture. The story itself makes sense — especially through the hard-boiled voiceover of a retired detective named Frank Harper (Dennis O’Neill) — but awkward pacing and poor acting from minor players disrupts the flow from episode to episode, and thus diminishes the overall quality of Surviving the Cartel season 1.

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Surviving the Cartel Review - Ely Bams Crime Series

Surviving the Cartel’s pacing issues distract from the gritty realism. For example, episode 2 often feels like a rough cut. Characters stare at each other before speaking and then stare again. Scenes keep going when the key takeaway has already been communicated to viewers. At one point, Alejandro complains to his wife, Marcelina (Vanesa Restrepo), about capitalists — the director holds on the shot for a full minute without any character dialogue, seemingly to accentuate Marcelina’s tears. The scene then continues for another 88 seconds without any dialogue as the husband and wife stare at each other and laugh awkwardly. Here’s the thing — the coverage does indeed makes sense, as it gives the filmmakers more to work with during the editing process. Ideally, however, the scene would’ve been significantly trimmed during post-production. This is a recurring issue throughout Surviving the Cartel season 1. Many moments feel like outtakes from Nathan for You, a comedy show that thrives on nervous energy and moments of awkward silence.

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Surviving the Cartel Review - Ely Bams Crime Series

Surviving the Cartel season 1 also suffers from a performance quality imbalance. The gangster actors fare well and the government actors struggle. And so the editing issues and questionable acting from minor supporting characters leads to unintentional comedy. The good news, though, is that Surviving the Cartel season 1 does indeed include some outstanding performances. Dimas González steals each of his scenes as a long-time narco named Juanipero “Pollo” Cambron, and he bears a striking resemblance to Mark Margolis — the American actor who appears as Albert the Shadow in Scarface (1983) and Hector Salamanca in both Breaking Bad (2008-13) and Better Call Saul (2015-). Pollo dominates the frame, due to González’s physical movements and verbal cadence. Nothing feels forced when the character shows up. In addition, the aforementioned Cantu arguably displays the most versatility, as he channels the anguish of his widower character and also provides some light comedy when reciting lines from American romantic comedies. With all due respect to Agüero (whose focal gangster, Alejandro, doesn’t have much depth), Surviving the Cartel season 1 peaks whenever González or Cantu appear on screen — either by themselves, together or with suitable acting partners.

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Surviving the Cartel Review - Ely Bams Crime Series

Surviving the Cartel has a strong foundation in place for a multiple-season run. But the series needs better supporting actors and more attention to detail during the post-production process. The narrative pieces should snap together; there shouldn’t be any character silence when the central message has already been communicated to audiences. Each 60-minute episode of Surviving the Cartel season 1 seems like it should’ve been trimmed to 45-50 minutes. Hopefully Bams and company will invest more time in post-production moving forward.

Surviving the Cartel is available to stream at 1265 Films.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.