NEW YORK • "Say yes to your life," Nancy Reagan commands near the end of the first episode of Netflix's new series Narcos.
It is a moment from the famous "Just Say No" speech that she delivered with her husband, president Ronald Reagan, in 1986. "And when it comes to drugs and alcohol," she continues, "just say no."
Cut to a drug dealer kneeling in a Colombian field who pleads: "No no no no, Pablo no," before being shot in the head.
It is a sequence that encapsulates both the style and substance of Narcos, a series about the bloody rise of the Medellin cartel in Colombia in the 1970s and 1980s.
Shot in Colombia and produced by Brazilian film-maker Jose Padilha, who also directed the first two episodes, the show mixes news clips with fictional portrayals of historical figures. It recounts the birth of cocaine trafficking and the at times morally ambiguous efforts to fight it by the authorities in both Colombia and the United States.
Pablo, of course, is Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin, here played with simmering menace by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura.
Narcos, large parts of which are subtitled, represents another ambitious, international undertaking as Netflix seeks new subscribers outside of the US. Available in more than 50 countries, the streaming service aims to be in 200 by the end of next year, and in the past year, it has added expansive international productions such as (the mostly admired) Sense8 and (the much less so) Marco Polo to its line-up.
Club de Cuervos, Netflix's first Spanish-language show, debuted this month, and Marseille, a French-language series, will go into production soon.
In Padilha, who developed the series with Eric Newman, an executive producer, Netflix has partnered with a former documentarian (Bus 174, 2002) who kept his didactic edge when he moved into narrative films. His Elite Squad movies, Brazilian blockbusters that starred Moura as an ethically erratic police commander, offered an entertaining but cynical - and controversial - look at corruption.
Narcos, written by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, is similarly pointed. It implicates traffickers such as Escobar, depicted as a megalomaniac smuggler who stumbled upon a product with profits as large as his self-image but also an American drug policy that declared "war" on the suppliers without doing much to address the demand.
The men charged with stopping Escobar are Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, portrayed by Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell to Game Of Thrones fans). The characters are based on the actual Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents who helped the Colombian police track Escobar, who was ultimately killed in 1993.
Though Narcos is largely fictional - drug dealers are not big on documentation, Padilha noted - the broad strokes are historically accurate and based on voluminous research as well as input from the agents, now retired.
Despite the large amount of historical and political context delivered in each episode, Narcos is hardly preachy - the premiere episode especially channels Goodfellas (1990) and the Elite Squad films, offering a fast-paced, graphically violent tour of an often savage subculture.
An international cast includes performers from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, several of whom spent time in Bogota during its violent nadir in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Juan Pablo Raba, who plays Gustavo Gaviria, Escobar's cousin and closest confidante, had an uncle who was killed in the 1989 bombing of Avianca Airlines Flight 203, which Escobar planned to try to kill a presidential candidate.
More broadly, the Latin American actors in the cast relished the opportunity to tell the Medellin story through a native prism. Despite the centrality of the DEA to the story, Narcos is "not going to be about American good guys who go to a poor culture to save these poor people", Moura said. "You're going to see the Colombian heroes of the story."
This perspective is part of what sets Narcos apart from other drug war critiques such as Traffic (2000), Padilha said. Shot primarily in Bogota, much of the show features subtitled Spanish dialogue.
For the actual DEA agents, Narcos represents another crack at a story they felt was poorly told in reports like Killing Pablo, the 2001 book about the hunt for Escobar, which Murphy said implied, inaccurately, that he and his colleagues collaborated with Colombian vigilantes.
As technical consultants on the show, Murphy and Pena spent a week telling the writers stories and advised on details. Murphy, who had not been to Colombia since 1995, made an eye-opening trip to Bogota with his wife and two daughters they adopted there to visit the set this year.
The place of military patrols and regular gunfire that he and his wife remembered was long gone, replaced by a safe, inviting and modern city. "We thought: 'Wait a minute. Did the plane land in the wrong city?'" he said.
Padilha hopes the Medellin story will be only the first chapter in a multi-season series that tracks the illegal drug trade through the succession of cartels that have controlled the supply to the American market, up to the present-day troubles in Mexico. "You just renew the gangsters and play out the same drama," he said.
Added Holbrook, "We all know that Pablo Escobar is not around anymore, but cocaine sure is."
NEW YORK TIMES