'Narcos' third season delivers despite shift of focus

NOSELL

Netflix

 

Monday, September 11, 2017 - 12:30pm

As one of its first original series, Netflix brought the story of legendary drug kingpin Pablo Escobar to the small-screen through “Narcos.” After wrapping up Escobar’s exploits in two seasons, “Narcos” faced the daunting task of entirely remodeling a show that was built around Wagner Moura’s (“Elysium”) terrifying performance as Escobar. With its third season, not only has “Narcos” succeeded in its tough assignment, but it has also produced a sleeker show with a more diverse cast. Already a quality series, the sharp third installment of “Narcos” continues the show’s run of success.

One of the most glaring issues with the shows first two seasons was the constant narration by protagonist Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook, “Logan”). Holbrook’s drawling voiceover always sounded slightly different from how his character spoke in the series — not to mention that the first season’s narration was incessant. With Holbrook written out of the series at the end of the second season, his co-star Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones”) takes over narrative duties in this new “Narcos” season.

The result is a voiceover that is significantly less distracting and annoying, though “Narcos” does continue to struggle with spoonfeeding its plot to viewers. While the voiceover is necessary at times, the series still goes overboard with its exposition. In a prime example of this unnecessary narration, this season’s premiere episode — “The Kingpin Strategy” — features Pascal describing the Cali Cartel’s business practices. Although “Narcos” highlights Cali’s professional way of doing business throughout the episode, Pascal’s voiceover still hands viewers these scenes through narration, with Pascal detailing how, “It was fucking Cocaine, Incorporated. And they ran it like a Fortune 500 company.”

Despite its voiceover drawbacks, “Narcos” successfully blends history and fiction. The series aptly writes in historical drug traffickers throughout its plotlines and intersperses clips of news anchors like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather discussing these figures. Compared to show’s constant narration, these clips better convey information to viewers and also provide an intriguing perspective into how these traffickers were perceived when they were active in the mid-1990s. Using historical traffickers also enables “Narcos” to draw upon real-world events for inspiration, which helps to deepen the universe into something resembling a documentary more than a drama.

In Season Three, “Narcos” brings in a host of new characters — and re-introduces several old ones — that work well on-screen, with the so-called four “Cali Godfathers” providing the show with new energy and diversity. While Moura unquestionably impressed in his role as Escobar in seasons one and two, having a single antagonist somewhat limited the series’s ability to develop a distinct type of villain, with Escobar’s cruelty defining his tenure on “Narcos.”

However, in this latest season, the series has four leaders of the Cali Cartel upon which to focus — Gilberto Rodríguez (Damián Alcázar, “El Narco”), Miguel Rodríguez (Francisco Denis, “The Liberator”), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann, “Cell 211”) and “Chepe” (Pêpê Rapazote, “Shameless”), all of whom give “Narcos” a more interesting cast. As exciting as Escobar was, he was singular in his viciousness, unlike the “Cali Godfathers” who label themselves the “Gentlemen of Cali” and are less prone to violence. This is one of the most intriguing and ironic aspects of the show’s new season, since drug traffickers are often defined by their bloodshed and sadism. Despite coming at the expense of some of the series’s non-stop action, this transition will help “Narcos”  carve out a new identity in post-Escobar seasons.

Although most of the series’s new cast excels, two of the new DEA agents flop badly. Working with Pascal, new agents Chris Feistl (Michael Stahl-David, “Cloverfield”) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan, “Go Girls”) struggle to develop chemistry and often come off as oblivious and incompetent. Feistl looks and sounds almost like a worse version of Murphy, whereas Whelan seems entirely miscast in his role. As much as Murphy struggles during his two seasons on “Narcos,” he was nowhere near as out-of-place as Feistl or Whelan. If that’s the worst thing about the show’s third installment though, then it must be a strong season.