By James Nelson
I guess I should have expected this. With the runaway success that came from True Detective’s first season, every single network had to get in on the gritty, dark crime procedural. No more would shows like NCIS or Castle be the only detective shows, now we have the ones that all millennials will watch! The networks have set in motion projects that are meant to capture the raw feel of True Detective’s bleak form of storytelling, and the latest of which come in two distinct and different packages, TNT’s Public Morals and Netlix’s Narcos. Let’s just say, only one of them is worth watching.
Both networks have been continuously churning out new content in the Golden Age of TV, where great programming is not restricted to channels one through five, but each with varying levels of success. For every House of Cards Netflix has made there’s been a Bojack Horseman; each show they’ve made has been of high quality, but some lack the widespread appeal of others (I mean, how many people have watched Grace and Frankie?). Similarly, or maybe not so similarly, TNT has focused their efforts the past decade or two cranking out low budget banality that’s been passed off as moderately entertaining (The Closer, Leverage, The Librarians), and the hit or miss shows like Falling Skies.
After the failure of Mob City, TNT bankrolled a full series run from indie filmmaker and actor Edward Burns, who directs, writes, and stars in it. It’s a period piece about plainclothes policemen in mid-1960s New York and their interactions with the criminal underbelly of the city. It’s a series that is meant to be the crown jewel of TNT. It’s serious, grim, and deals with immorality and corruption, and has a massive, star studded cast.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7elNhHwgBU&w=560&h=315] (Yeah, that music DOES NOT appear in the show)
Netflix’s Narcos is similar in it’s content. It’s about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the most powerful drug kingpin who has ever lived, and the DEA agents who hunted him. It deals with many of the same themes as Public Morals … so why do I find myself wanting to chew my own arm off watching Public Morals?
So. Many. Reasons.
Just looking at Public Morals on a piece of paper there is every reason why I should love this show. Its a period drama (I LOVE those). It’s got historical authenticity. It deals with public corruption. It has a wise guy attitude a la Robert De Niro. It also has a massive cast full of excellent character actors: Edward Burns, Michael Rapaport, Neal McDonough, Brian Dennehy, Timothy Hutton, and Robert Knepper (these are just the people you’d know and it’s not even half the cast). The problems show up when they actually try to put these ideas on the screen, and much of it I’m gonna chalk up to this thing I call “TNTness.” Between the lighting, the directing, and the quality of the sets and props there’s nothing to distinguish this prestige show from The Closer except in the acting and dialogue. And God … the music. It’s terrible. I mean completely jars with the tone of the series. There’s not a clip that they’ve shown that retains that terrible, awful music, but it’s basically like if True Detective had the music of Leverage behind it.
Yeah. Kind of like that.
You should just watch Narcos
Narcos, however, actually feels like a high quality production. It has an excellent script (that’s mostly spanish), beautiful scenery, and feels like a really long movie. It’s perfect for binge watching. The main thing that’s surprised me is that this show not only has no one noteworthy in it (literally, the only actor I know from anything else is Pedro Pascal, who played the Red Viper in Game of Thrones) and yet I don’t care. It’s also largely in Spanish, as all but one character speaks it, and I still enjoy it immensely. It also has a strong Goodfellas vibe as it follows Escobar’s rise to power and is narrated over by this lazy American accented intonation, which works so well for the series it hooked me. And even though it takes place over a decade and has a million characters, the writers and director, Jose Padilha (Robocop, 2014) had the fortitude to take a narrow focus and only really bother with three characters. Everyone else in the story is secondary to the DEA agents and Escobar. It could have easily fallen into the Game of Thrones problem that Public Morals falls victim too, but it didn’t. Hopefully everyone will learn that your series is stronger when you focus on a few characters, and the only reason it works for Game of Thrones is because it’s a fantasy story where you need all those extra points of view to build the world.