Screen Test

TV reviews: Jason Bateman turns in top performance in crime drama Ozark

Like Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013) or Weeds (2005 to 2012) , Ozark is about a respectable middle-class type falling into a life of crime, getting in over his or her head and then dragging loved ones down with them.

Financial adviser Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) launders money for a drug cartel through his firm. Things go awry when his partner is killed by the cartel for stealing from it. Silver-tongued, quick-thinking Marty is spared because he suggests moving the operation to Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks.

Flooded by cash-rich tourists every summer and tough for the authorities to police, it is the perfect spot to set up a network of sham money-laundering businesses.

To pull it off, he must uproot his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and kids Charlotte (Sophia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) from their comfortable life in Chicago. They move to the lake, a rundown area deep in Trump-voting country, with no organic pistachio ice cream to be found for miles.

The Byrdes are fish out of water and soon clash with two local crime families, the Langmores and the Snells, with FBI agents and the cartel's henchmen also closing in as Marty's grand scheme threatens to unravel.

The ins and outs of the brewing turf war and criminal operation are not entirely original or plausible, but there are enough plot twists and turns to keep viewers hooked.

 Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in Ozark.
Above: Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in Ozark. PHOTO: NETFLIX

What makes this a compelling watch are the character studies, especially of Marty - a guy who counts every penny, parks his car just so, and hectors his family to act like a cost-cutting small business.

Yet he is not as smart as he thinks he is - he can talk his way out of almost anything, but overestimates the gullibility of the locals, who roll their eyes at his "pretty words" and business spiel.

Underlining this is a timely commentary about class divisions in America, and the current perceived chasm between coastal elites and less-educated working-class whites. With its sympathetic look at the Langmores, the story tries to shatter stereotypes of the latter.

But you still root for Marty and his clan - in no small part because Bateman, who also directs four of the 10 episodes, turns in one of his best performances to date.

The micro-expressions he uses as the straight man in comedies such as Arrested Development (2003 to present) and the Horrible Bosses films (2011 and 2014), he deploys here to suggest hairline cracks in a stolid exterior or the whirring of gears as he thinks his way out of another jam.

Tonally, the show seems to be going for a Top Of The Lake vibe, after Jane Campion's 2013 series set a new gold standard for moody neo-noir crime dramas set in atmospheric small towns populated by questionable locals.

There are dream sequences revealing Marty's subconscious resentments and desires, a portentous blue-grey cast to most scenes, aphorism-spouting gangsters and preachers and some ominous animal metaphors thrown in for good measure, including an on-the-nose one involving a documentary about an invading species of bird (read "Byrde").

There are many moving parts and they do not fit perfectly together, but this engaging show is nevertheless a thoughtful addition to the genre.

 China Girl.
Above: Elisabeth Moss in Top Of The Lake: China Girl. PHOTO: BBC

It gets a run for its money, however, from Campion herself, who is back with a second season of her show, Top Of The Lake: China Girl.

Elisabeth Moss reprises her role as Robin Griffith, a Sydney police detective who specialises in sexual assault.

  • VIEW IT / OZARK

  • Netflix

    3.5/5 stars

    TOP OF THE LAKE: CHINA GIRL

    BBC First (StarHub TV Channel 522) and BBC Player

    3.5/5 stars

Still reeling from the events of the first season in New Zealand, she is back in Sydney trying to rebuild her life and solve a new case involving the body of a Thai sex worker that washes up on a beach.

At the same time, she is trying to start a relationship with Mary (Alice Englert), the child conceived of rape whom she gave up at birth and who now lives with adoptive parents Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman).

As an exploration of misogyny and violence against women, this is even more of a gut-punch than the original series, whether it is the geek-bros who brag about their exploits with hookers, male cops who disrespect Robin, or Mary's monster of a boyfriend.

But the main theme this season is motherhood: the manic desire for it and the ambivalent feelings of many once they have it.

The last two of the six episodes are a little overcooked dramatically, but Campion, and her power as a storyteller, continue to elevate this genre like no one else.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline 'Riveting drama as protagonists uproot their lives'. Print Edition | Subscribe