How do you tell the story of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious drug kingpin in history? That question has stymied writers and filmmakers for years, because there’s simply too much story to tell: about the rise of Colombia (and specifically Escobar’s Medellín cartel) as a chief exporter of narcotics, about police corruption and political influence, about cocaine culture in Miami and around the United States, and about the drug war that continues to metastasize across the Mexican border and beyond.
The best solution so far has been to tackle it in pieces, as in the exemplary ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “The Two Escobars,” which focused on Escobar’s love of soccer and strategic investment in community, or in Mark Bowden’s book “Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw,” which focused on the long and morally dubious pursuit that finally led to Escobar’s death in 1993. (Markedly less successful: Vinnie Chase in “Medellín,” the fictional fiasco-within-a-show on HBO’s “Entourage.”)
Netflix’s “Narcos” has the real estate to cover the vast scope of Escobar’s operation, the impossible effort by law enforcement agencies to shut it down and the countless subplots spinning off those larger initiatives. The trick is to tell the story without allowing the man’s ever-expanding sphere of influence to spill out like a gelatinous narrative blob.
On that most basic, crucial level, the premiere is a resounding success, a fleet and deftly orchestrated hour that sets the table without breaking any plates. The creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, along with the Brazilian director José Padilha, appear to be summa cum laude graduates of the School of Scorsese.
In “GoodFellas,” “Casino” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese neatly packages the ins and outs of expansive criminal operations in voice-over narration, which keeps the info dump out of the dialogue and frees him up to move the camera. While Mr. Brancato, Mr. Bernard and Mr. Miro’s script doesn’t have quite the irreverent kick of Scorsese’s narration, it has the same outlaw allure. And in laying out Escobar’s criminal infrastructure, “Narcos” establishes its own.
The one problem with “Narcos,” at least in this very early stage, is that the guy doing the establishing, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), reads as more mustache than man. After some awkward throat-clearing — an ill-fitting analogy to magical realism, a needless reminder that late-’80s technology was cruder than the technology of 2015 — the show starts with the framing device of a sting operation in 1989 Bogotá. A triangulated satellite telephone call has led Murphy and the local police to a nightclub where Escobar’s hit men (called “sicarios”) are gathering for a meeting. The melee that follows sets up a hell of a stinger for the series: Escobar, in the last scene, offering a half-million-dollar bounty for the head of a drug enforcement agent. But just as important thematically is that the impression that this isn’t a sting operation but an indiscriminate blood bath. “You do what you think is right,” says Murphy, “and hope for the best.”
The bulk of the first episode is devoted to the creation of an industry, starting in Chile, just before Gen. Augusto Pinochet rose to power with American support. Chile had the raw materials and the unmonitored coastline to manufacture and distribute this new drug, cocaine, to ports in the United States and beyond, but Pinochet’s ascendance put an abrupt and characteristically bloody end to it. That leaves one survivor, aptly nicknamed Cockroach, to offer this exciting venture to Escobar, who, as the show introduces him, is already running a highly lucrative smuggling operation.
The narration wisely pauses for Escobar’s introduction and yields the floor to the actor playing him, Wagner Moura, who was the lead in “Elite Squad” and “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within,” the high-impact (and highly controversial) crime films on which Mr. Padilha built his reputation. The scene has Escobar and his trucks, all brazenly packed with contraband, getting stopped by agents from the D.A.S., Colombia’s intelligence agency. The authorities make it clear that they’re well paid and incorruptible, unlike the poor cops in Medellín, but Mr. Moura plays Escobar as absolutely relaxed, to the point of near indifference. Escobar knows the officers’ names, knows the names of their family members and knows they’ll do the smart thing. Mr. Moura suggests a man who has thought through every aspect of the business and has the requisite lack of empathy to defend it. To him, human bodies are a matter for accounting.
From there, Murphy’s voice-over picks back up and the rest of the episode deals with escalation: the transport of kilos from wheel wells to Peruvian potato trucks; the smuggling pipeline from Colombia to Miami, beginning with one guy’s bulky suit jacket and expanding to drug mules and a private plane; and Escobar’s partnership with two other criminal enterprises, led by the Ochoa brothers and José Rodríguez Gacha. We also get a taste of Escobar’s ruthlessness — sorry, Cockroach, you will not survive this particular bomb — and a whiff of his arrogance too, including his posing for a notorious mug shot with a big grin on his face.
Throughout the episode, Mr. Padilha toggles back and forth between his footage and documentary shots of the real Escobar and his exploits, which plays up the show’s commitment to verisimilitude. We’ll get into the particulars of Mr. Padilha’s style as “Narcos” unfolds, but viewers who know him only from his botched remake of “RoboCop” may have the wrong idea. Mr. Padilha specializes in on-the-ground political thrillers in the Costa-Gavras (“Z,” “State of Siege”) mode. And so far, he’s in the zone.