Why Narcos became such addictive viewing
The Pablo Escobar-focused first season was aimed solely at increasing Netflix subscriptions in South America and Europe. But nobody expected a largely Spanish-speaking series to become the streaming giant's biggest hit, writes Ed Power
It's one of the world's favourite TV shows but has nothing to do with CGI dragons or Scandinavian detectives looking glum in stylish cardigans. Narcos is instead a rip-roaring throwback to the heyday of Miami Vice, with a sprinkling of true-crime documentary on top. And, while the formula might sound old-fashioned, it has been remarkably popular, giving Netflix among its biggest hits to date.
Season Four of the drugs romp - technically a spin-off of its predecessors - returns today and it is fair to say that anticipation among Netflix subscribers is high. Narcos has moved on from its original setting of Colombia from the late 70s through to the early 90s and instead will focus on the rise of the cocaine cartels in Mexico from the mid-80s. At a time when a blustering Donald Trump has heightened tensions along America's southern border, the additional contemporary resonance needs no explaining.
The new cast is headed by Michael Pena, as a well intentioned yet naive American drugs enforcement agent who goes to Mexico with dreams of making his career. Out in the sticks, meanwhile, a crooked cop turned small-time marijuana dealer (Diego Luna) has ambitions of his own: to unite Mexico's feuding crime lords and essentially create the world's first drug-smuggling conglomerate.
This all happened in real life and the resonances continue to this day with Mexican godfather El Chapo currently on trial in the US (he pops up as a minor character in Narcos: Mexico).
The documentary aspect adds an additional layer of intrigue to Narcos that probably goes someway towards explaining its appeal. We think we know these stories - or at least we may dimly recall reading headlines about them - which make the process of discovering what really went down all the more satisfying.
Netflix has never hid the fact that it did not have especially high hopes for Narcos when the series debuted in 2015. At that point, the streaming service was adopting a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks stance. After the success of House Of Cards, it was churning out new 'content' - trying to get a sense what its audience wanted.
The hope was that Narcos, which features largely Spanish dialogue, would win new viewers in South America and Europe (Netflix was at the time about to launch in Spain). To the apparent surprise of Netflix, however, it took off elsewhere too. An incredible 27 million are said to have watched Season Three the week it debuted, making it Netflix's most popular series (followed by Stranger Things and Ozark).
Part of the attraction was the singular blend of action and intrigue. In its first two seasons, the show was packed with shootouts and chases - all shot on location in Medellin, the city from which Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar built his empire.
It was also initially aided by an immense performance by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. He portrayed the cartel leader as a ruthless thug but, furthermore, as a somewhat sensitive soul, who genuinely believed he was a force for good in his impoverished home town with political aspirations.
Indeed, it was Moura's sensitive portrait that quelled much of the criticism flowing in Colombia, where people are understandably fed up of their country being synonymous with cocaine.
"He was a contradiction. He was a big murderer, an assassin," Moura told me when, with minimal fanfare, he was promoting Narcos in 2015. "At the same time, he was someone who loved his kids and his wife - was very generous to the poor. Someone who dealt in cocaine, but liked to smoke marijuana. He was very human - very, very complex.
"To the end of his life, he was like a poor kid that wanted to be accepted and loved. To have the child within alive is very important to certain professions - if you are an artist, for instance. In Pablo's case, his child made him very charismatic, very interesting. At the same time, it was extremely destructive. 'You're not going to play with me? Okay, I'm going to smash the whole place up.' That was the kind of child Pablo had inside him."
Moura raised Narcos above its pulpy source material. However, the real life Escobar was finally hunted down and killed by Colombian special forces in December 1993, meaning his story would have to end. Rather than draw a line under Narcos, Netflix instead expanded the series into a franchise. Season Three remained in Colombia but switched focus to Escobar's rivals in the Cali Cartel, if anything even more ruthless than their slain enemy.
But now comes the most radical break yet as Narcos moves several hundred miles north, to Mexico just as the drugs war is about to sweep through the country like a contagion. As in Colombia, the Mexican government was not thrilled to have its dirty underwear featured on a Netflix smash. But Mexican actor Diego Luna, who plays Félix Gallardo, the head of the Guadalajara cartel, believes Narcos will force the nation to confront its dark past.
Luna sees the new run of episodes as more than just entertainment. It holds a mirror up to Mexican society in the 80s and asks serious questions about the corruption endemic in the country.
"This [criminal] structure that was built… it wasn't just the drug dealers that were involved," he told Variety. "It was the politicians, it was the police, it was the military on both sides of the border…So, yes, this is a good case to start asking ourselves how much all of us are involved together in the problem."
If consistently thrilling, there is also an argument that across its four seasons Narcos has functioned as a meta-level commentary on the war on drugs and its futility. The harder the US and other first world countries crack down, the greater the extremes to which organised crime will go. And the heavier the price the developing world pays.
"The war on drugs is a big flop," Moura told me. "Especially the countries that produce and export drugs. The war on drugs takes place not in the United States - but in Mexico and Colombia and Bolivia and Brazil. They are the places were kids in poor neighbourhoods are being killed in a horrible way. I'm not saying drug use isn't a big deal - but it should be treated as a health problem, not a police problem."