This post contains spoilers referencing the first season of Ozark.
This summer Netflix released Ozark, a crime drama that follows a family from Chicago to the Ozarks as patriarch Marty Byrde tries to pay off a sudden debt to a drug lord. The fish-out-of-water series follows the Byrdes as they struggle to assimilate to the backwoods pace of the Midwestern resort region. Along the way a Mexican drug gang, a local crime family, and an obsessive F.B.I. agent present different challenges to the Byrdes. The struggle of an otherwise solid Ozark is the absence of a dynamic lead performance that would elevate it beyond ordinary television.
The series is led by Jason Bateman, who also directed four of the first season’s ten episodes. Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago financial adviser whose marriage is collapsing as he launders money for a dangerous Mexican drug dealer (played by Esai Morales). In Ozark Jason Bateman as a dramatic actor is not much different from Jason Bateman as a comedic actor. He built a reputation through roles in projects like Arrested Development and Horrible Bosses as being the straight man amidst the chaos. Unfortunately, that quality remains too intact throughout Ozark.
In most of Bateman’s prior roles he is the epitome of normalcy. His intentionally ordinary presence allows for other actors to take over the scene. What Ozark desperately needs is for a central character to take over the show and create gripping drama. Bateman is frequently a part of a scene, but he does not command the action as a lead should. Laura Linney, who plays his unfaithful wife Wendy, presents her role far more effectively.
During Ozark Marty accumulates assets with a dispassionate delivery that is closer to an accountant going over the books than a desperate money launderer trying to survive by razor thin margins. Watching Wendy jockey for control of the real estate agency portrayed a cunning that should probably be more in tune with Marty. It is not that Linney or a character’s wife should not display those skills, but her acting makes it seem as if Wendy is the mastermind instead of the intended lead.
Bateman may be punting to Linney in the same way that he defers to Will Arnett and Charlie Day, but the style does not translate to drama with the same success as his comedy.
The Waiting Game
An unfair (but obvious) comparison to Jason Bateman’s portrayal of Marty Byrd is Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White in Breaking Bad. Both portray characters that are initially milquetoast but whose predicaments put them in perpetual danger. Throughout Breaking Bad Cranston delivers captivating performances that dominate a scene and leave no doubt as to who is the main character of the story.
Throughout Ozark the primary actor always appears to be waiting for someone else to take over. This aspect of the series has a negative effect on the dramatic vibe of the show. Even during the moment when the preacher tells Marty “There’s gotta be a God, because there’s the devil. I think you’re the f-ing devil,” it is not believable because Beelzebub actually does not seem to be that terrifying. Compared to the multiple drug lords and other crooked figures in Ozark, Marty Byrd is an immoral guy who is not even close to being the worst person on the show.
Ozark has a good premise. It has bad guys (Morales, Peter Mullan) a law enforcement nemesis (Jason Butler Harner), dark comic relief (Harris Yulin), and interesting supporting actors (Jordana Spiro, Julia Garner). What Ozark does not possess is a strong leading performance from its central character. This creates a constant hollow from a show that otherwise has the potential to be a signature series for Netflix.