Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Did Game of Thrones ruin Narcos?

Show poster from Netflix. 

The fictional world of Westeros has real world implications about how we view the way plot and action take place on shows across networks. Netflix’s Narcos, whose second season dropped at the end of August, failed to adapt to the uber-tense sequences, horrific violence and emotional weight that Game of Thrones made standard. Thrones has Reddit users up late crafting theories, researching lore and trying to fit the puzzle pieces that are the show’s characters into a possible storyline that makes sense.

Not every show has to be Game of Thrones. Most try to steer clear of knights and castles in general: History Channel’s Vikings is the only other show in that particular sub-genre of fantasy that comes to mind. But that doesn’t mean that critics and viewers won’t judge every shootout, every betrayal and every line of dialogue through the lense of Thrones.

After the fun thrill ride of season one, Narcos season two returned with high expectations riding on the stellar cast of actors who play characters ranging from DEA agents to cartel grunts. Much to my chagrin, after watching just one episode of this season, I was exhausted. The first episode wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, and neither was the second or the third. After Pablo Escobar, who the show is essentially a large love letter to, escaped for the umpteenth time in as many episodes as I can count on my hand, I grew frustrated. When Colombian government and U.S. agents are as unlikeable as the people they seek to kill, the shootouts tend not to resonate.

I found myself laughing audibly during the second episode, when towards the end, Pablo has his men shoot up various police checkpoints around the city while ballroom music plays as he dances with his wife. Maybe I watch too much TV, but I’ve seen a similar scene probably a dozen times in my life. It is tropes like that, and scenes when a character says some cheesy line like “you have something other than coffee for me,” (as said by Pedro Pascal, formerly of Game of Thrones), that make the moment fall well short of the mark. Sure, Prince Oberyn (Pascal) may have said a few things that, looking back on them, may be a little cringe worthy, but at least he was a character who viewers both cared deeply for and knew had the power to kill anyone on screen at any given time.

Actor Maurice Compte returns to Narcos as the brutal Colonial Carrillo, a tough talking, efficient leader who uses deadly tactics, making him deeply loathed both among officials and the cartel. He shoots a teenager and pushes several men out of a helicopter, an action that feels like childsplay after seeing Ramsay Bolton get eaten alive by dogs or Catelyn Stark have her throat slit in Thrones. Almost every scene on Narcos feel like it could have been predicted by even a moderate silver screen connoisseur.

Viewers’ general numbness to violence has been an issue raised by concerned mothers and disapproving grandmothers who reluctantly buy their 12-year-old the next ‘Call of Duty’ all the same, but I take the point of view that George “Railroad” Martin’s show changed the game. There has never been a show as gory and consistently shocking as Game of Thrones, the latter of which makes creating engaging content a challenge for non-HBO studios.

Anyone making a show with violence post-Thrones has to reconcile the fact that the cat and mouse chase the protagonist and antagonist engage in has to be innovated upon to avoid tedium. Part of the issue is that Netflix releases all their episodes at once, making it much easier to binge watch a season of a show, a format that does not suit Narcos particularly well. After watching Pablo and his cohorts cheat death two times in two hours, the stakes begin to feel low. While having agent Murphy face marital troubles may seem like a plot point that would make viewers care about his character more, the fact that the show barely spends any energy convincing viewers of how marital strife is negatively impacting him is a real issue.

Sure, shows like The Wire, Oz and The Shield showed gratuitous violence, featured plots that zigged when viewers thought they would zag and starred characters who captivated the audience. Only when you start to compare these shows to Thrones do they begin to show their weakness. The dread, the anticipation and the cinematography that comes with Thrones’ battles are all severely lacking on Narcos this go-around

Ideally, whenever HBO’s smash hit is out of season, viewers could have their minds wiped so as to better enjoy the mediocrity that is much of Narcos this season, but until that technology is accessible and safe, expect more gripes about the lack of creativity facing television's most-watched shows and their most talked about scenes.

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