TV/Critic's Notes (Streaming)
'Narcos: Mexico' + 'ZeroZeroZero' = Familiar, Yet Gripping Just the Same
By Alex Strachan, TVWorthWatching.com
's 'TV That Matters' - Mar. 10, 2020
And then there were two. Or perhaps 22. Who knows anymore? ZeroZeroZero landed mere days after the second season of Narcos: Mexico on Netflix, and it's becoming hard to keep track. TV's seeming obsession with Traffic-style thrillers about the drug trade seems, if anything, to be growing, like a hard-to-control respiratory virus — on the streaming services, anyway, if not on broadcast TV, where a planned Miami Vicereboot, executive-produced by Vin Diesel, failed to find any takers last spring at NBC.
Esthetically, though, something interesting is going on.
ZeroZeroZero, an eight-episode, eight-hour limited series on Amazon Prime Video, is an Italian-French co-production, filmed on location in Italy, Mexico, Morocco (standing in for Senegal), and New Orleans. It has the decidedly cool, detached feel of a European thriller, with frequent subtitles and the slick, polished sheen of a big-screen thriller.
It isn't just that ZeroZeroZero has the polish of an extended feature film. It has the tough, uncompromising veneer of a feature film that doesn't much care whether you like it or not. Realism is more important than emotion in a thriller like this, and the fact that there are no characters you can root for is both calculated and deliberate. ZeroZeroZero isn't condescending toward the average network TV viewer exactly, but there's a distinct — if unspoken — attitude that if you want a comforting drug thriller where the good guys win and the bad guys are taken down in time by the next commercial break, you're better off watching NCIS: New Orleans than ZeroZeroZero's version of the Crescent City.
It's hard to describe how stylized — and stylish — ZeroZeroZero really is. It has been shot in the widest of widescreen, and there are moments of genuine, cinematic beauty, where even something as prosaic as a container ship grinding its way across the Atlantic has an eerie, almost ethereal feel to it; everything of importance that happens at sea in ZeroZeroZero, it seems, takes place at the break of dawn, when it's still dark but dawn's early light is breaking over the horizon, or at sunset, where a blood-red sunset hints at a night to come that's going to be more dark and deadly than anything that happened during the day before.
Both Narcos: Mexico and ZeroZeroZero are aiming for a kind of hyperrealism, and the reality is that narco town is a violent world, where the violence is sudden, shocking, and deliberately gut-wrenching. Much has been written about both programs' penchant for violence, and more than a few online entertainment sites that wallow and glorify the cartoon violence in network cop shows — where the good guys and bad guys both get shot but no one ever gets seriously hurt — have complained that the violence in ZeroZeroZero and Narcos: Mexico is over the top.
The makers of both programs — but ZeroZeroZero in particular — don't particularly care about niceties like whether the violence is extreme or not: Entire regions of northern Italy and Sicily have been dealing with real-life drug violence in their communities for decades, generations even, and ZeroZeroZero's French-Italian makers want you to know that drug violence comes with real consequences.
The situation is much the same in Mexico's northern provinces, especially of late, even as one online reviewer suggested only last week that Narcos: Mexico's new episodes are for people who never want the drug war to end.
Are either ZeroZeroZero or Narcos: Mexico worth watching? In fact, yes. Dismissing ZeroZeroZero and Narcos: Mexico's new season as the same old same old doesn't give either program enough credit and is a bit lazy. Narcos: Mexico is superior to Narcos in every way. The annoying, non-stop voice-overs that turned entire episodes of Narcos into a wall of wordy exposition have been scaled back in Narcos: Mexico, thankfully. The voice-over is used sparingly in Narcos: Mexico and the story is more effective for it. Narcos' makers have gone back instead to the old-fashioned idea of telling a story visually — show, don't tell, remember? — in a coherent, chronological order, instead of jumping back and forth in time with constant flashbacks and flash-forwards (a tell, I've always suspected, that the writers don't know how to tell their story if they even have a story to tell).
Narcos' voice-over is particularly irritating, at least to these ears, mumbly and muddy, too, as voiced by actor Scoot McNairy, who plays hard-luck DEA agent Walt Breslin, the closest Narcos has to a sympathetic character, in a sarcastic, know-it-all drawl that would be more effective if it went by the old rule that less is more.
Narcos: Mexico uses less voice-over, and it is more effective for it.
Narcos: Mexico also has a philosophical side entirely absent from the original. The best episode in the new batch, or the most revealing anyway, is the second hour, in which police-captain-turned-drug-lord Félix Gallardo (played with multi-layered shades of gray by Mexican writer-actor Diego Luna), spends time at the family compound of Don Juan Guerra (Sonora, Mexico native Jesús Ochoa), an older, wiser, life-lived kingpin given to long soliloquies about the meaning of life — advice, the viewer suspects, Félix is going to ignore assiduously. "What a man wants tells us nothing," Guerra tells Félix at one point. "What a man needs tells us everything."
Yes, but what if the needs of almost everyone in Narcos: Mexico have to do with power and money? What does that really tell us about them?
That they're superficial and shallow, perhaps, and such people make the worst enemies because they have no wish or even a concept of leaving a better world behind them. Some national leaders in the world today have that same trait.
It's that underlying caution about what really matters in life — i.e., is it better to have more money and power than you'll ever know what to do with, or is it better to be comfortably off and be loved by your children, your neighbors' children, and all the other children in the community? — that lends Narcos: Mexico its gravitas and emotional resonance, especially at the end (no spoilers here). It's what places Narcos: Mexico on a whole other level from the original.
ZeroZeroZero is harder to like, and a harder watch. It's also more adult, more demanding, and painfully realistic. Its emotional detachment becomes a character in its own right, which is a very European way of telling a story.
ZeroZeroZero has the feel of one of those Scandinavian Nordic noir thrillers if Steven Soderbergh made it. Despite the New Orleans setting, and the fine performances — in English! — by Andrea Riseborough and Gabriel Byrne (again, no spoilers), ZeroZeroZero could not be more different from your typical network crime drama if it tried.
Full credit belongs to Amazon Studios here. A cynic would point out that ZeroZeroZero was made with the international market in mind — and that cynic would be right — but there's more to it than that. ZeroZeroZero is tough and uncompromising and relentless to a fault, hard to watch, and yet strangely addictive. This is not a world any sane viewer wants a part of, and yet the way ZeroZeroZero has been made is so much more gripping than a documentary or an item on the nightly news. It's cinema more than TV, in both look and feel.
No Hollywood studio would ever have signed off on ZeroZeroZero as is, and yet Amazon somehow found a way. That's the basic advantage a streaming service has over a broadcast network.
ZeroZeroZero takes the concept of creative license to a whole other level, and it's better for it.
It also refuses to flinch, from the real victims of the drug trade, bystanders caught in the crossfire — literally — of the constantly quarreling drug lords. Every one of these scenes is harrowing, but an early moment, when a little girl is shot while on her way to school — blood staining her school skirt while a vigilante army commander (Harold Torres, playing one of ZeroZeroZero's most mercurial, hard-to-read characters) tries to coax her back to consciousness, all the while reciting Bible passages in his head — is particularly harrowing. (This isn't ZeroZeroZero being gratuitous, by the way; this happened in real life and is one of the reasons why Mexico's real-life drug wars, and people's growing revulsion to them, is so much in the news right now.)
Torres' character, Manuel Contreras, nicknamed "Vampiro," also touches on another facet unique to Narcos: Mexico and ZeroZeroZero: The idea that politicians and more than a few national governments are strictly in it for themselves, and are more interested in feathering their own nests than actually governing. Contreras (Torres) sees the rot and corruption at the heart of Mexico's political leadership, and so decides to mete out justice on his own. He sees himself as a devoutly religious believer who is the right hand of God, doing God's work, even as he's pulled into the very world he despises.
ZeroZeroZero has had mixed reviews so far, which is a polite way of saying the reviews have been mostly bad.
To these eyes, though, it's not just good but really good: a modern-day update on the 1989 BAFTA Award-winning series Traffik, the UK miniseries that provided the template and inspiration for Soderbergh's 2000 Oscar-winning film Traffic.
The original Traffik also won that year's International Emmy Award for best drama, and I can see ZeroZeroZero being a serious contender for this year's International Emmy.
At the very least, ZeroZeroZero is TV worth watching — provided, that is, you can tolerate the explicit violence and the lack of any truly sympathetic characters. It's as close to the real thing as one is likely to see on the small screen, and exceedingly well made into the bargain. These days, that's more than enough.
'Narcos: Mexico' is currently streaming on Netflix; 'ZeroZeroZero' is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.