Ozark Snark

This week we binged the last part of the last season of Ozark. The lure of finding out what happened to the Byrde family and what train wrecks (and, in this case, car wrecks) lay in their path was irresistible. Now we’ve done it, so we’ll have to get a bit snarky about it.

Warning: Ozark Spoilers Ahead

The last part of the last season of Ozark suffered from two problems that are common in successful “seemingly normal people behaving badly” shows. First, you have already killed off many of the good characters to keep injecting shockers into the show, until you get to the point where you are looking around, most of the interesting characters are gone, and you’ve got to figure out who the few remaining characters are going to interact with. That often means injecting less familiar, and almost always less interesting, new characters into the last season of the show. Second, the main characters who have been behaving badly have already experienced all of the plausible bad behaviors, so you’ve got to push the envelope into implausibility territory–and the show becomes a bit ridiculous and suffers as a result.

Ozark experienced both of these problems. By the end of the last season Buddy and the original Langmore crew are long dead, Wendy’s brother is dead, Helen Pierce is dead, the Snells are dead, Wyatt is dead, and so are countless others. That left the Byrdes, Ruth, the cartel lords, and the pesky private investigator. There really wasn’t anyone left for Ruth to scheme with, which is why the long-departed Rachel character had to be lured back from Florida to promptly (and implausibly) become Ruth’s stalwart partner in sticking it to the Byrdes. That’s why Wendy’s Dad, the new necessary Wendy foil, suddenly became a key figure, too. And once nephew drug lord got killed, the show had to promptly introduce mother/sister drug lord and make her (implausibly) even more cold-blooded, murderous, and connected to the Mexican drug culture and assassination cult than her son. A key indicator that Ozark had killed off too many of the good characters was that Ruth ended up having daydreams about talking to Wyatt and seeing the other Langmores again.

And the last season of Ozark had the implausibility problem in spades. It wasn’t just the new and revived characters I’ve mentioned above, it was the plot lines. I’ve written before about how the Byrdes set new standards in crappy parenting, but the last few shows made even the Byrdes prior parenting efforts seem credible by comparison. We’re supposed to swallow Marty the ace accountant going down to Mexico to act as the head of the cartel, and all of the hardened criminal lieutenants are going to fall in line? Wendy’s Dad is going to get a custody hearing set in three days? The Byrdes and their string-pulling buddies are going to be able to change extradition status and get the FBI to do whatever they suggest whenever they make a phone call? The Byrdes get into a high speed, rollover car crash and everyone walks away without a scratch? And the high rollers and kingpins of the Midwest are all going to gladly contribute to a charity headed by people who’ve just been arrested for assault and have the sketchiest imaginable background? And, perhaps most implausibly of all, none of the countless criminals the Byrds had screwed would ever go over to their hopelessly insecure house and gun down the entire family, just to be done with them?

I accepted these issues and enjoyed watching Ozark through to the end, notwithstanding these issues, just to finally seeing what happened to the Byrdes. My only complaint is that the execrable Wendy, one of the most annoying and truly despicable characters in the history of television, wasn’t killed off in some extremely painful way that included impaling her through those dimples she always showed during one of her creepy charm offensives. Seeing her on her knees about losing her kids and checking herself into a mental institution wasn’t enough for me. I wanted Marty or one of the kids to slug her when she said, as she did again and again, “we are so close” and then have her gutted, drowned, set on fire, dropped from an airplane, dragged behind one of those boats on the Lake of the Ozarks, and experience any other ultra-painful demise the show’s writers could think of.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Perhaps the creators of the show wanted to leave open the possibility of a sequel, realizing that a considerable portion of the Ozark viewing audience hates Wendy Byrde with a burning passion and would gladly watch a new show in hopes of seeing her get her final comeuppance.

The New Parenting Mendoza Line

Baseball has its “Mendoza line.” That’s ballpark slang for a .200 batting average, named for Mario Mendoz, a banjo-hitting shortstop who played in the big leagues decades ago and who frequently failed to reach that line. If you are a professional baseball player, you don’t want to be anywhere close to the Mendoza line, much less below it.

On Ozark, Marty and Wendy Byrde have established a parenting version of the Mendoza line–and with each new season they amazingly manage to lower it. Their parenting approach is so pathetically incompetent that they have somehow managed to fall below the pitiful parenting shown by the Donovan clan on Ray Donovan, a show that was the previous frontrunner in the “how not to parent” derby. In fact, the Byrdes make the Donovans look like the fantasy families on Father Knows Best , Leave It To Beaver, or The Waltons.

The Byrdes haven’t exactly been great parents before, primarily because their money-laundering exploits routinely put their two kids in great physical peril. In fact, every time the family turns out the lights on their sprawling, window-laden home on the bucolic shores of the Lake of the Ozarks, you expect a truckload of Kansas City mobsters, local opium growers, and Mexican drug cartel members–or perhaps all three, acting together–to drive up, leave every member of the Byrdes riddled with bullets, and firebomb the house for good measure. Carefully providing for your children’s physical security is Parenting 101, and the Byrdes have always failed dismally at that basic, threshold step.

Warning: Ozark parenting spoilers ahead!

But this season the Byrdes’ parenting has gotten much worse, no matter how many times Marty might plead for the kids to come around for a “family dinner” to enjoy “Mom’s chicken.” Their smart, bike-riding 14-year-old son Jonah is not only guzzling brewskis on his off-time, he’s pedaling away every day to launder money for opium growers. And he clearly hates his mother with a deadly passion and will never forgive her for killing her brother. Jonah hates his mother so much, in fact, that he would rather spend time with an obviously deranged, murderous opium-growing lunatic who wouldn’t blink an eye before killing him if she thought it served her interests. Marty’s response is to try to get Jonah to come home for family dinners. Wendy still thinks she can command Jonah to do what she wants, and when that doesn’t work she concludes that flagging Jonah’s money-laundering scheme for the feds is the appropriate parenting response, because it will teach Jonah a valuable lesson and any juvenile conviction will be expunged when Jonah turns 18.

That’s not the kind of approach that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton or modern parenting experts would endorse.

Jonah’s total estrangement is troubling enough, but in some ways the Byrdes’ parenting of their high school-aged daughter Charlotte is worse. Charlotte has totally bought in to the Byrde criminal enterprise. She works at the family-owned casino as a kind of floor boss, she walked out on her SAT exam and has seemingly given up on going to college, and Marty and Wendy casually enlist her to convey threatening messages to her friend who might otherwise rat them out. Wendy evidently thinks it is a good idea to bring Charlotte a big tumbler of bourbon when it’s time for a mother-daughter chat. And, worst of all, the Byrdes seated their teenage daughter next to a ruthless thirty-something wannabee drug lord for the Mexican cartel at a restaurant and got to watch as the guy cozied up to Charlotte, slurped oysters with her, and made his disgusting interests all too plain. Any rational parent would have yanked her out of there and run screaming, but Marty and Wendy stoically accepted it because it furthered their long-term schemes.

The bottom line is that, when it comes to parenting, Wendy Byrde is soulless and delusional, and Marty Byrde is able to clinically rationalize pretty much any and every bad thing so long as the family sits down to dinner and he can still believe he’s somehow going to be able to extricate his family from the mess that he’s made.

The “Byrde line,” like the Mendoza line, sets a ridiculously low standard. Ozark should make every other Mom and Dad on the planet feel like Superparents by comparison.

Setting The Hook, Firm And Deep

Skilled fishermen — and I’m thinking of the likes of the Brown Bear, here — will tell you that getting a fish to bite at the hook and lure is only the first step in the battle between the angler and his watery quarry.  Fish that just nibble at the bait don’t end up caught.  If you don’t make sure the hook is firmly lodged in its mouth, the fish will wriggle away and live to taunt the fisherman another day.

So the key is to set the hook. The accomplished angler will inevitably have a subtle move, a flick of the wrist that ensures that the hook is set firm and deep in the fish’s mouth, and that elusive fish won’t be a challenge any more.

The same holds true for modern television producers hoping to attract viewers to their shows.  There are so many options out there — on Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, the networks, and countless other outlets — that some people argue that right now, rather than the ’50s or ’70s, is the true Golden Age of Television.  And because there’s a lot of content to watch, if you’re a couch fish looking for a new series to binge-watch on a cold winter weekend, you’ll nibble at an episode or maybe two, but you’re not going to spend too much time on shows that don’t immediately set that hook and leave you happily wriggling on the line, looking forward to the next episode.

Kish and I experienced this phenomenon this week.  We watched the first episode of Russian Doll, which has been getting some buzz recently, and it just didn’t do much for us — it was just too flagrantly New Yorkish and a bit too consciously contrived for our tastes.  We decided to try something else, and we’d heard good things about Ozark, so we gave that a try . . . and after one episode we were absolutely hooked.

The flick of the wrist that set the hook, firm and deep, probably came at about the time the quick-thinking Marty Byrde seized upon a Lake of the Ozarks pamphlet to talk his way out of disaster, or maybe when Wendy Byrde’s paramour met his maker.  But whenever it happened, as soon as the first episode was over, we knew we’d be riding the Ozark train to the end of the line and our weekend and immediate TV viewing future was set.  And the series has only gotten better as unforgettable characters like Ruth Langmore and the Snells have entered the fray.

I wonder how many TV producers fish in their spare time?