There's something very familiar about Ozark.
A white, middle-class anti-hero gets involved in organized crime and does terrible things for his family, who in turn do their own terrible things. There’s graphic violence and a strip club, and the whole series seems to be shot through a blue-and-gray filter.
The Netflix thriller (streaming Friday, ** ½ out of four) draws comparisons with other crime dramas starring family-focused anti-heroes, like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos: Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is a bored, disinterested Chicago financial adviser with a seemingly perfect family and a sensible Camry. He also happens to be a money launderer for a powerful drug cartel.
When a cartel leader murders Marty’s partners after they skim money, Marty makes a last-chance play for his life by suggesting he move the business down to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where he says he can wash more money in an untapped market.
It takes a long time for Ozark to set up its premise; so much so that the pilot makes it feel like the entire story would have been better suited as a film about Marty and his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), on the run.
The series reveals its true focus in the third episode, as it broadens from the family to the greater criminal enterprise in the Ozarks and the law enforcement agents who track them.
While there’s a lot to like in the cast and some of the plot, one of the major problems with the series, created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams (The Accountant), is that episodes feel too long at 60 minutes. It’s easy to find places where smart editing could have added momentum and urgency. For a series in which the lead characters are fleeing certain death, it often feels a little lackadaisical and bloated.
Bateman plays Marty with a glazed disinterest, and he’s not nearly the most interesting character in the show. (He does, however, contribute to its atmosphere by directing the first two episodes.) Wendy is a more surprising and self-assured figure, and displays Linney’s acting skills. The housewife puts on her own cheery performance for a questioning FBI agent and family friends, but she has a cold fury that comes out when she's threatened.
Ozark also benefits from Ruth (Julia Garner), a young aspiring criminal who is both a potential threat and ally to Marty. Garner, too, has a striking confidence, and it's easy to see how a petite teen could intimidate men who loom over her physically but are beneath her in intelligence.
And beneath its hazy Missouri surface, there are intriguing elements to Ozark. When the series looks past Marty’s story, it finds something worth coming back for.