Netflix’s Narcos is one of the biggest global television successes of the digital age. Numbers rank it as the second most watched TV series in the Anglo-world – beaten only by the HBO titan, Game of Thrones.
Following this success, a third and fourth series have recently been announced. Quite impressive for a television series shot in Colombia, produced in France, and with 85% of its dialogue in Spanish.
Yet, despite its phenomenal success and global appeal, the series continues to draw its fair share of critics. For Colombians, it is the hashed paisa accent of lead actor, Wagner Moura – a Brazilian who learnt Spanish specifically for his role as El Patrón – that grates the ear.
Fortunately, for Netflix and Telemundo, their key audience resides on the other side of the world where people are none the wiser to such inaccuracies. Others complain it is simply a recycled version of the previously successful Colombian series, ‘Patrón del Mal’.
This, however, is a tenuous comparison.
Firstly, Patrón del Mal was a telenovela. Also, it only found domestic success. Its budget and standards of production fall way short of the mark when compared to the highly polished series we know as Narcos.
Subject matter aside, the two series are worlds apart.
Not today’s Colombia
More interesting, and also more prevalent in expat circles, are the criticisms stemming from foreigners. Pieces such as ‘5 Reasons Not to Watch Narcos’ seem to have been recycled on Facebook more times than I care to remember.
Most common, is the assertion that Narcos portrays Colombia as a dangerous ‘third world’ state, and is not representative of today’s Colombia. The impetus is to defend the country many expats now call home; a country unrecognisable from the 1990s.
From my own experience in Bogotá, I can happily attest that Colombia has indeed seen a radical transformation since the days of Pablo Escobar. Contrary to what many of my fellow countrymen in the UK may believe, today’s Colombia is not some form of Hobbesian nightmare in which every man is a drug dealer or criminal trying to shoot/rob you, or where every woman a prostitute.
In fact, Bogotá’s cobble streets, which I happily wander alone half-intoxicated, iPhone in hand, are the setting of Narcos’ opening shoot-out scene. Today, the biggest threat is likely to come from the shoe polish man trying to communicate with me in his thick Caribbean accent, not the cartels.
I can also attest, however, that there is still a long way to go. Only last week was I woken up at 6 a.m. by a robbery outside my apartment in this very part of Bogotá.
More serious are the strangleholds which paramilitaries hold away from the capital, the potential power vacuums in the wake of FARC’s imminent demobilisation, and shootouts which currently dog the tourist capital of Cartagena.
Yet, it remains, that Bogotá, and Colombia, are no longer dominated by drug violence. For many foreigners such as myself, applying the same level of vigilance and common sense as one would in any big city is sufficient.
In some moments, it seems almost possible that such a time never existed.
Tourism is booming, start-ups and tech are thriving, and the country is trying to secure the end of the longest-running conflict in Latin American history. Colombia can no longer be considered a nation at war with itself.
On this basis, for many, it is now a potential beacon of social and economic progress, not the alleged ‘failed state’ as depicted in Narcos.
Yet, Colombia’s evident transformation is not a basis for one to denigrate the success of Netflix’s production. At no point does the series proclaim to be a portrayal of modern-day Colombia. Nor does it even purport to hold true historical accuracy.
As the opening credits state, Narcos is a ‘dramatisation inspired by true events’. It is Hollywood style entertainment for the masses. It offers an embellished account of an already astonishing story, and loosely depicts the state of Colombia in the 1990s through the lens of the DEA and Escobar himself.
It is not indicative of contemporary Colombia, nor does it claim to be. I sympathise heavily with Colombians who find their country endlessly associated with narcotics.
Not only is it a constant reminder of a tragic past, it is a grossly simplistic view of a country which has so much to offer the world. Still, Narcos should not be held responsible for such culturally insensitive assumptions. This is rather the result of inherent human flaws.
Put simply, we like to make generalisations. Putting things in boxes is how we make sense of a world which is otherwise a big unintelligible swirling mess.
Unfortunately, many individuals know little about Colombia, or even Latin America as a whole. Narcos is a way in.
Although nuance and an understanding of the world’s complexity and diversity is obviously admirable, not everyone has, or even wishes to have such a perspective. Though of course nowhere near as offensive, Colombians often associate myself with tea, the Queen, Big Ben, or even salsa Inglesa – (what even is that!?).
The point is, to understand distant lands we need a way in – whether that be celebrities, landmarks, historical events/epochs, or even, table condiments?
Unfortunately for Colombia, the historical epoch is a particularly dark one, and one of which the legacy is still painfully far from being shaken off. For some foreigners, viewing Narcos will reinforce the image of Colombia as a narcotics state. But, for others it will spark interest.
Some will discuss it with their friends in a bar. Others may pick up a book. Some may engage in social media discussion, or even write an article or two.
Thus, however, the series is interpreted, it not only offers entertainment, but provokes discussion. It has pushed an issue, or perhaps even a historical epoch to the forefront of discussion.
Is this not perhaps a value in itself?