The Allure of Narcos, or Why I’m a Fan

Since Netflix released 10 episodes of a new series titled Narcos last month, the press has been buzzing with praise, criticism, and analyses the show’s cultural implications. The documentary-esque drama series follows the rise of narcotraficantes in 1980s Colombia, centering on Pablo Escobar and DEA agent, Steve Murphy, who is on the Escobar case. In the last decade, the drug trade has gained widespread attention in political spheres as well as popular culture, so it comes as no surprise that a series employing absorbing storytelling techniques to portray the drug wars was swiftly signed for a second season.

While several TV programs about drug growing, selling, and abuse have gained acclaim (think Weeds, Mad Men, The Wire, or the more recent sensation Breaking Bad), Narcos is in a league of its for own for (1) its setting in Medellín and Bogotá, Colombia rather than the United States and (2) its Spanish-language dialogue. The U.S. is embroiled in many aspects of drug trafficking (we represent drug consumers, policymakers, law enforcement agents pursuing traffickers, and occasionally a combination of these actors), and other hit shows focus on these participants in the drug trade at the cost of adequately treating Latin American involvement.

But this series is set apart from its drug-centered-program predecessors in that Narcos accounts for the central role of Latin America in the issue of drug trafficking through the setting in a Latin American country and the incorporation of provocative conversations in Spanish, not English in all of the 10 episodes (that’s right, there are some subtitles, as Stephanie Merry for The Atlantic explains in the article “How Netflix is Tricking American Audiences into Embracing Subtitles”).

So that’s a few reasons I’m loving it: as the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. continues to grow, it’s about time a major U.S.-based TV network appealed to this audience, engaged directly with Latin American and Spanish-speaking characters, and addressed the prickly history of U.S. involvement in Latin America (the first episode, for example, includes a segment on the CIA-backing of Pinochet who was put in power in the 1973 coup and whose administration committed a multitude of human rights violations).

Essentially, Narcos begins the long-awaited project of navigating U.S.-Latin American relations in popular media culture. And given this ambition, I’m not let down nor surprised that among Netflix’s motivations for picking up Narcos was its potential to boost subscriptions in Latin America; an article in Variety magazine features statements from Netflix executives on the financial incentives for producing shows on Latin American-related subjects. Beyond hoping to spur an upswing in Netflix’s viewership in Latin America, Netflix was further incentivized to film on location in Colombia via the country’s rebate programs. Such policies encouraging U.S. media to participate in on-location shooting in Latin American countries may facilitate greater attention to the deep ties between the two countries.

Notwithstanding the subject matter, the sustained attention on Latin America, or the profit-centric reasons underlying the show, the narration style is worthy of commendation. David Sims for The Atlantic reminded me of the parallels between agent Murphy’s commentary and the narration in Goodfellas, and while I recognize the similarities, I don’t see the harm in adapting the style of a successful film to tell a completely different story. I admit that I have a special interest in the subject of Colombia’s political history (I’m moving to Colombia in a few months!) and U.S.-Latin America relations regarding the drug wars, but I disagree with Sims’ assertion that the show’s “methodical approach comes at the cost of any real drama or engaging side-characters. As Holbrook’s narration explains every step in the rise of Escobar’s cartel, the effect is more like a Ken Burns documentary than an engaging serialized drama.” I take no issue with a well-researched series, especially one based on a true story and especially when the systematic narration style breaks down the complex history of the drug trade into more digestible events and consequences.

But Sims’ commentary does raise questions about the relationship between drama and documentary in Narcos. I’m left wondering, for series like Narcos, where does the boundary between historical fact and story embellished for entertainment value lie? There is, after all, the familiar disclaimer at the beginning of the show stating that characters and events were dramatized in the TV adaptation. But for the viewer looking to understand the true history of Pablor Escobar, questions remain about the historical accuracy. Since the release of the show on August 28, predictably, reporters have begun to investigate the accuracy of Narcos, some speaking with Murphy and his partner directly. But the episodes themselves focus on storytelling without disclosing where precisely creative license has been deployed.

Contact with primary historical sources also occurs visibly in Narcos episodes, further contributing to the tension between fact and fiction. Like Pablo Larrain’s docu-fiction film No about the plebiscite in Chile, Narcos incorporates archival footage and historical photographic sources seamlessly into episodes. And more so than No, Narcos pulls off the integration with wit and charm. I particularly enjoyed in episode one the cut from footage of Nancy Reagan entreating the youth to “Just say no to drugs” to one of Escobar’s early partners shouting “No, no, no!” mere moments before his execution. The overlay of the audio neatly links these disparate occasions of a first-lady addressing the general public of the U.S. and a murder carried out in the Colombian hinterlands and in such a manner that is extremely satisfying.

Actual clips of Reagan’s announcements to TV viewers are also interwoven with key scenes featuring Narcos characters to generate suspense. In the fourth episode once Murphy and his partner, Javier Peña, have found a key informant who provides them with evidence of Escobar’s links to Nicaragua’s communist ruling party (the Sandinistas), viewers sit at the edges of their seats, supposing Murphy and Peña have found their critical lead. But the “classified” documents become not-so-classified after being transferred to Washington, spoiling Murphy and Peña’s lead and putting the safety of the informant in jeopardy. After Murphy’s voiceover suggests the information was divulged, the episode cuts to another announcement by Reagan in which the president himself shared the no-longer-classified photographic evidence to the general U.S. public. In the next scene, the informant is swiftly killed by sicarios (hitmen working for the big drug kingpins).

While Narcos manages to represent both Colombian and U.S. parties as susceptible to corruption and deleterious to the cause of resolving issues of the drug wars, the show ultimately positions U.S. citizens, DEA agent Murphy, and his partner, Peña, as heroes who were critical to the capture of Escobar (we think–the first season ends with Escobar still operating his cartel). There are several upstanding Colombian characters, but the majority of the pernicious figures were Colombians, not to mention the king manipulator, Escobar, creating an imbalance of representations, or an association of danger and lawlessness with Colombia and sharp, justice-seeking conviction with the U.S. The final episode restores a precarious balance in its portrayal of Colombian President Cesar Gaviria as resolute and shrewd in fighting the nefarious Escobar. And we must now wait eagerly until the second season is released to see how Narcos pushes the serial docu-drama genre further and handles U.S.-Latin American cooperation and hostility surrounding the drug wars.

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