Nastiness has never been more fun to watch than on ‘Ozark’

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney star in “Ozark.”
Jason Bateman and Laura Linney star in “Ozark.” Netflix

The new drama, “Ozark,” is one of the most cynical series you’re ever likely to see on TV. The 10-episode series, created by Bill Dubuque, is available for streaming on Netflix.

Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is a financial adviser married to Wendy (Laura Linney), who once worked on Barack Obama’s state senate campaign in Chicago. They have a sullen teenage daughter, Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), and a younger son, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner).

Marty and his partner, Bruce (Josh Randall), have been laundering money for Del (Esai Morales), the head of a drug cartel. It’s made Marty and Bruce rich, but not entirely smart. Someone’s been skimming the “laundry basket,” and Del sees a need for a personnel change. Several employees lose their jobs. And their lives.

But Marty fast-talks his way out of the line of fire by promising he can launder so well, Del will realize an even greater profit. Within a couple of days, Marty has pulled his family out of Chicago and resettled them on the shores of Lake of the Ozarks. They buy a house from a dying man on the condition that he can live in the basement until he dies, and Marty sets out to work his wily way with the locals. His goal is to partner with established businesses, including a dock-side church, as a way to launder money.

Marty may think he’ll have no problem manipulating dentally challenged rubes, but one group is growing poppies for heroin manufacture, another local runs a strip club and is too smart to fall for Marty’s scheme, and a second group, the Langmore family, knows that Marty has brought $8 million with him to be laundered and blackmails him into giving them a piece of it.

“Ozark” is a contest to see who can take the crown as the most morally bankrupt character of the pack. We’re not just talking about drug-running yokels and oily money managers. The list of candidates includes Wendy, who is conning a real estate broker, who fires his own mother from the business because he thinks he can make a bundle with Wendy as a partner; a preacher and his wife, who justify their choice to go to the dark side as necessitated by practicality; a government agent tracking Marty’s family, who pays local hustlers for nocturnal visits to his cheap motel room; and Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner), who is cold-hearted, murderous, calculating and smarter than the rest of her family put together.

Marty and Wendy are having serious problems in their marriage, but they are more tightly bound by their shared ambition than love. They have even let their kids in on why they’ve moved to the Ozarks, and we see moral decay begin to impact their young lives as well.

On and on the parade of reprehensibility continues. But we find ourselves making a moral choice among the characters. Marty is detestable for putting his family in jeopardy by his criminal activities, but he’s not as hateful as, say, Del, who is murderous. Wendy is an unfaithful wife and a snake oil saleswoman, but she’s not as bad as Ruth Langmore, a true psychopath. Then again, it is fun to watch Ruth get the better of the male morons who make the mistake of underestimating the diminutive blonde.

The overpopulation of scoundrels almost works until the eighth episode, when Dubuque makes a strategic error: He gives us a big flashback to explain how some of these scalawags got the way they are. It not only interrupts the story line; it pulls the thematic rug out from under the show. We’ve come to delight in how treacherous this bunch is and now, abruptly, we’re supposed to see that some have a streak of humanity left?

Fortunately, the error is not fatal.

The performances are good. Marty is a con artist, but we warm to him because he’s played by Jason Bateman, and the series makes good use of Bateman’s everyman likability. Linney is also good, but her character seems uneven. She’s Betty Crocker one minute, Ma Barker the next. But she is fascinating to watch.

Garner is monumental. She makes Ruth Langmore one of TV’s great villains by giving us a fleeting glance at her inner sadness without humanizing her. That momentary hint makes her frighteningly real. In Garner’s capable hands, Ruth Langmore is a backwoods Lucrezia Borgia.

Does all of this feel off-putting? Yes, at first. Nasty people who deserve each other — why would you care? But after the first episode, “Ozark” finds a certain pace, andyou keep watching hoping that at least most of them get what’s coming to them.

You can’t look away.

TV review

‘Ozark’ is available for streaming on Netflix.