‘Ozark’ and microtension

Unlike some people who write books, I’m not hostile to television, especially good television.

And Netflix’s Ozark is very good television. I’m now binge-watching the series, and I’m already in the fourth season.

I’m sort of dreading the end of the fourth season, because that’s all there is! Netflix has already announced that there will be no fifth season of Ozark.

Here’s the premise of Ozark, briefly stated. Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman) is a Chicago-based financial advisor. Despite being a whiz with money, he’s never quite been able to keep his head above water.

Then Marty is courted by the Navarro drug cartel as a money launderer. After extensive discussions with his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), Marty reluctantly agrees to the proposition.

But Marty’s old college friend and business partner, Bruce (Josh Randall), makes a fatal mistake. Bruce attempts to cheat the cartel, by skimming some of the laundered cash.

And as we all know, cheating Mexican drug cartels is never a good idea. The cartel eventually finds out what Bruce is up to. Cartel operatives show up in Chicago. They execute Bruce, along with his fiancée, and the father-son trucking company owners who were also involved in the theft.

Marty witnesses the massacre. Needless to say, he is shaken…but alive.

The cartel allows Marty to go on living, but his life is still on the line. Marty and Wendy, along with their two children, must leave Chicago for the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. There they must launder cartel money through local businesses. Or else.

Hijinks ensue, along with numerous compelling storylines.

How compelling? Ozark is the first TV series I’ve seen in a long time that makes me forget I’m watching TV. I’ve even been having dreams about the show. And I never dream about television. Or at least I haven’t since I was a little kid.

But how does the show pull this off? There is an old debate in storytelling circles. Which is more important: a big, original idea (aka “high concept”), or competent execution?

Ozark lands a decisive vote on the side of execution being important.

Think about it: how many movies, novels, and television series have we seen about ordinary people getting involved with Mexican drug cartels? This is one of the most common go-to storylines in crime film, TV, and fiction.

Ozark is also a fish-out-of-water story. A Chicago family coping with life in rural Missouri. These, too, are as old as television: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Northern Exposure. Need I go on?

Fish-out-of-water crime and espionage stories are nothing new, either. For example, Ray Donovan was a series about a low-level Boston mobster in Los Angeles. The Americans told the story of deep-cover Soviet assets in Washington D.C., posing as ordinary American citizens (hence the name of the show) during the final decade of the Cold War. 

That the Byrdes are transported from Chicago to Missouri makes for an interesting setup, but nothing earth-shattering, in itself. It’s really just a variation on a tried-and-true storytelling technique.

What about killer plot twists? Well, there are some of those, too. And while the plotting in Ozark is very strong, it’s a long way from perfect. There are a few twists that strain credibility just a bit. I even noticed one twist that might be assessed as an instance of the dreaded jumping the shark.

Lovable characters? Not so much. Marty and Wendy Byrde are deeply drawn characters. (A long series leaves plenty of time and space for that.) But Marty is too much of a milquetoast for my tastes, and Wendy is simply too much of a loose cannon.

Ruth Langmore (played by the talented Julia Garner) is certainly memorable. She’s also lifelike. Although I’ve never been to Missouri, there are young women here in Ohio, and neighboring Kentucky, who are similarly combative and profane. Ruth’s circumstances, moreover, invite sympathy. But in real life, her constant cantankerousness and never-ending stream of F-bombs would grow wearisome.

The idea of spending a week with any of the Ozark characters in real life would leave me distinctly unenthusiastic. I suspect I’m not alone in this opinion.

Nor can Ozark lean on its setting much. Unlike Magnum P.I. or Miami Vice, Ozark isn’t set in any vacation spots. Most of the show takes place in the rural American South and Chicago.

Ozark is also set against a background of poverty. (Much of the show literally takes place in a trailer park.) That’s supposed to be a no-no for any filmmaker or novelist who seeks mass appeal.

Ozark holds our attention not with high concept, nor with avante garde originality, nor with airtight, ingenious plot twists. And no—not with settings we’d like to visit, or with characters whom we’d love to meet in real life.

Ozark holds us in thrall with what literary agent and editor Donald Maass once dubbed microtension.

What is “micro tension”? In Maass’s words, microtension is: 

“the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen—not in the (overall) story, but in the next few seconds.“

That’s what Ozark does best. Once again, I’ll avoid any spoilers here. But suffice it to say that in each scene in Ozark, there are multiple open questions, and multiple opportunities for the viewer to be surprised.

By maintaining this constant tension in each scene, and by constantly weaving new, intersecting plot threads, Ozark grabs hold of you at the outset, and never lets you go. You are always on-guard, always tense, because you really never know what will happen next.

Ozark’s writers, directors, and actors make you experience the show’s real-life dangers, but without the real-life consequences. They pull you in as much as is possible through the medium of television. That’s why the show is so popular, and has been nominated for so many awards.

I’m just a few episodes from the end of Ozark, and like I said: I’m dreading it—just like I’m dreading the moment-to-moment question of “what will happen next?” that grips me in practically every scene.