“Tiger King” may have provided the trashy shock value of a true-crime documentary, but the one scripted TV series that’s gotten us all through quarantine is Season 3 of “Ozark.”
After a month, it remains one of Netflix’s top-trending shows with the pacing of “Breaking Bad,” the body count of “The Sopranos” and a setting that’s a character like “The Wire.”
The fast-paced plot follows the Byrde family, led by financial advisor Marty (Jason Bateman) and political campaigner Wendy (Laura Linney), who are forced to leave Chicago and go on the lam in the Ozarks when a money laundering scheme goes south, putting them under the thumb of a Mexican drug cartel and under the scrutiny of the FBI.
In a show filled with anti-heroes, our biggest attachment is to Marty, who is seemingly introduced watching porn at the office, only to learn that he is actually watching video of his wife’s affair. Within seconds, he goes from pathetic to sympathetic. This sympathy ebbs and flows throughout the series, as Marty keeps his calm through high-pressure decisions.
As for Wendy, we initially despise her for cheating on her husband, a feeling that carries through most of Season 1 as a selfish antagonist within the family. As they work on their marriage in Season 2, we come to admire her entrepreneurial spirit in running the family business, until she becomes greedy and coldblooded like Michael Corleone in Season 3.
Caught in the middle of it all are their two innocent kids, Sofia Hublitz as Charlotte and Skylar Gaertner as Jonah. Charlotte learns the hard way that the visiting boaters on Party Cove aren’t meant for long-term relationships, while Jonah displays a troubling fascination with dead animals while taking an interest in his parents’ financial web of shell companies.
Still, the scene stealer is Julia Garner as the tenacious Ruth Langmore, whose family has a reputation as trailer-park troublemakers. We root for her to break free without forgetting where she came from, taking care of her cousins Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and Three (Carson Holmes) alongside uncles Russ (Marc Menchaca) and Boyd (Christopher James Baker).
While those are the central figures, each season establishes killer side characters.
Season 1 introduces ailing tenant Buddy Dieker (Harris Yulin); Blue Cat restaurateur Rachel Garrison (Jordana Spiro); gullible realtor Sam Dermody (Kevin L. Johnson); unethical FBI agent Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner); Mexican drug lord Del (Esai Morales); and poppy growers Jacob & Darlene Snell (Peter Mullan & Lisa Emery).
Season 2 further explores Pastor Mason Young (Michael Mostly) and his pregnant wife Grace (Bethany Anne Lind), whose river sermons are hijacked by heroin dealers; Ruth’s paroled dad Cade Langmore (Trevor Long); lakehouse political donor Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein); and the drug cartel’s cutthroat lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer).
Finally, Season 3 adds Teamster Frank Cosgrove (John Bedford Lloyd) and his punk son Frank Jr. (Joseph Sikora); drug lord Omar Navarro (Felix Solis); pregnant FBI Agent Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes); Helen’s naive daughter Erin (Madison Thompson); bribed shrink Sue Shelby (Marylouise Burke); and Wendy’s bipolar brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey).
Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, the series is set in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, where Dubuque worked as a dock hand during college in the 1980s, though most of the show is actually shot near Atlanta to receive Georgia tax breaks for film production.
The gorgeous scenery of natural landscapes contrasts with the man-made development of marinas, bars, strip clubs and casinos, recalling John Boorman’s “Deliverance” (1972) in its theme of humans “raping nature” by flooding acres of otherwise peaceful countryside.
These bright exteriors contrast with dark interiors, symbolizing the Byrde family living in shadows. Casual fans might complain it’s too dark like “Game of Thrones,” but cinephiles will hail the muted palette as a nod to “Prince of Darkness” cinematographer Gordon Willis.
The cherry on top is graphic designer Fred Davis, who uses a black backdrop with a white letter “O” containing four images shaped like the letters “O-Z-A-R-K.” Like Saul Bass’ graphics for Hitchcock, the credits become symbolic foreshadowing of what’s to come.
This provides a unique guessing game for fans to jot down the clues on a notepad at the start of each episode, then try to scan the image to find the items in mise-en-scène. Simple beer cans might actually be a key bonding moment between characters. Other times, the images reveal shocking moments like a heartbreaking scene toward the end of Season 3.
Regardless of the clues, no image could prepare us for the shocking twist in the final scene of Season 3, going out with a bang and providing a hug for the ages. The cliffhanger instantly makes us excited for Season 4, though it will probably be delayed by COVID-19.
Overall, the series has received 14 Emmy Award nominations with Garner winning Best Supporting Actress (Drama) for her role as Ruth and Bateman winning Best Director (Drama) for the episode “Reparations.” Bateman has also earned two Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his role as Marty, while Linney has earned an Emmy nod as Wendy.
Here’s hoping Season 3 finally wins Best TV Drama after back-to-back wins by “Game of Thrones.” Now that “Thrones” is off the air, Season 3 has a shot at winning with its most critical acclaim on Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1 (70%), Season 2 (90%), Season 3 (97%). Audience scores remain strong: Season 1 (92%), Season 2 (90%), Season 3 (92%).
If “Ozark” wins, we might have to change the opening credit image to an Emmy statue. Although in this show, that hardware might wind up crushing someone’s skull on a dock.