'Ozark' (2017-22): Why do so many of us love watching evil things being done on TV?

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The theme that runs through ‘Ozark’ is… family. Marty and Wendy would do anything—and are doing everything—to protect their family and their children.(Illustration by Suneesh K.)

One of the most chilling film sequences that I have ever watched is in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 movie Frenzy. A man whom we know to be a serial murderer escorts an innocent woman up to his apartment. The camera precedes them up the stairs even as everyone in the audience silently pleads for her to leave. And then, after they have gone in and we know that the woman would now be raped and killed, the camera slowly tiptoes back down the stairs and out across the busy street in London’s Covent Garden.

the latest tech news, global tech news daily, tech news today, startups, usa tech, asia tech, china tech, eu tech, global tech, in-depth electronics reviews, 24h tech news, 24h tech news, top mobile apps, tech news daily, gaming hardware, big tech news, useful technology tips, expert interviews, reporting on the business of technology, venture capital funding, programing language

In that three-minute scene, Hitchcock made all the viewers complicit in some way in a ghastly crime.

Like millions of people around the world, I have been a fan of the Netflix show Ozark. The show is now officially over, with the second part of its fourth and final season streaming last month. It is one of Netflix’s most viewed shows ever, but as I binge-watched it a few days ago, I could not help but wonder a few times—why am I spending hours on this story of people who become increasingly morally degraded with each episode, where the good guys don’t have any chance of winning? I will avoid all spoilers here, but let me say that the ending confirmed my worst fears.

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Ozark is the story of the Byrde family—Marty (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Laura Linney) and their two children Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and Jonah (Skylar Gaertner). Marty, an efficient accountant, is forced to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. Wendy, initially a bystander, grows to be an active participant in the criminal activities and finally the mastermind of the Byrdes’ journey to wealth and political power. Their frenemy is Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), a fiery young woman born into a lowly hillbilly family and prone to fits of murderous rage. And lots of people get killed.

But the theme that runs through Ozark is… family. Marty and Wendy would do anything—and are doing everything—to protect their family and their children. In their worldview, “family” justifies all that they do, including directly or indirectly causing the death of innocents. And the show, like Hitchcock in Frenzy, makes its viewers complicit in their evil. I am sure that most people in the audience want the Byrdes to succeed. They root for Wendy’s amoral schemes to triumph.

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Interestingly, the series never shows the on-ground consequences of what the Byrdes do—the actual impact of the heroin that they are helping push into society.

Which brings us to the root question: Why do so many of us love watching evil things being done on TV, with no punishment or redemption? Some of the most successful TV shows—adult TV shows—have been just about this. For instance, The Sopranos, about a New Jersey Mafia clan, or Succession—a business family straight out of hell, or Billions, about a crooked hedge fund manager and a kinky government lawyer, or Breaking Bad, the biggest hit of all, in which a timid high school chemistry teacher becomes a masterly crystal meth producer. In fact, when Ozark began streaming five years ago, it was seen as a rip-off of Breaking Bad—another show about nice normal citizens going rogue.

I have no sympathy for any of the lead characters in these shows, though I have watched all of them. A close friend of mine gave up on Ozark after the first three episodes because “there was just too much evil”. I understand that.

Yet, the reality is that vast masses of people who don’t commit any criminal offence in their lives other than petty attempts at tax evasion are fascinated by people who do highly illegal stuff and get away with it. And I am not talking about Robin Hood-ish movies where some smart commoners rob a Las Vegas casino or efficient thieves take revenge on a nastier one. I am referring to films in which the protagonists do not have the slightest moral justification for what they do—and win. Wendy Byrde rationalizes her actions as “sacrifices” for her family, and as accumulating power for a greater good, but that logic doesn’t wash. It is just that—a rationalization.

Perhaps stories like Ozark tap into some sub-conscious belief that our lives and societies and power structures are fundamentally unjust. It is narrow selfishness that is the only viable way to deal with the scheme of things. Wendy Byrde certainly believes so. Apparently, back in the 1960s, when The Beatles ruled, there used to be a pop psychology theory that your mental make-up could be inferred by which Beatle you liked most—John, Paul, George or Ringo. I don’t know if any such studies have been conducted for Ozark, but it would certainly be interesting to know what sort of people cheer for Wendy, or Marty, or Jonah, or Ruth.

Most successful works of popular culture owe their success to some sort of identification by the audience, whether active or unconscious, from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five to KGF: Chapter 2. We work out our fantasies through the acts of James Bond or Rahul (“Naam toh suna hi hoga”). Shows like Ozark challenge you: Would you do what Wendy and Marty are doing?

That is the easy moral comfort that all of us Ozark fans can rely on. Language, culture, nationality do not matter here. Because Ozark provides us a handy rationale for things that we may have thought of doing but never dared to. And of course, the world is much safer for the fact that many of us did not dare. Or chose not to. Ozark’s dark tale is finally about choices that people make, and that fungible thing called money. As Marty Byrde tells us, right in the first episode: “Money is not peace of mind. Money is not happiness. Money is, at its essence, (the) measure of a man’s choices.”

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