When the best edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster ride on television today is the ongoing adventures of President Donald Trump, how can TV dramas hope to compete?
“They can’t,” answers Jason Bateman. “There’s nothing more compelling on TV right now than the incredible work news media is doing in uncovering this fiasco. It just keeps writing itself. You keep thinking that you’ve got a crescendo in the plotline then something even bigger and chewier happens.”
You keep thinking there’s a crescendo in the Trump plotline, then something even bigger happens
Nevertheless, the latest binge-worthy (fictional) series is Ozark, starring Bateman – who also directed several episodes – as Marty Byrde, a shady Chicago financier forced by a drug cartel to relocate to the Lake of the Ozarks and launder millions of dollars to save himself and his family.
Bateman, best known as the most well-balanced member of the Bluth clan in Arrested Development, follows the likes of Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in going from comedy roles to darker, more morally murky territory.
Ozark has as many twists and turns as the lake around which it’s set. This lake, a popular holiday destination in middle America uncharitably nicknamed the ‘Redneck Riviera’, looks like a spidery Chinese dragon. Like fellow TV antiheroes Walter White, Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano and most of the Game of Thrones cast, you find yourself rooting for someone who often behaves quite despicably.
“If you can show there’s humanity and vulnerability behind someone you can get away with a lot,” Bateman says. “Oftentimes it’s a look in the eye, the way you say the line, your behaviour before and after you say the line. We certainly have it on Arrested Development.
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“The showrunner Mitch Hurwitz said it really well, ‘Our job as writers is to write these characters as unlikeable as possible and your job as actors is to make them as likeable as possible.’ The combination of these two efforts can make for some pretty funny things.”
As in Arrested Development, Bateman in Ozark acts as a tether at the centre of the drama, and he says he enjoys playing people “close to the middle”, so a little push one way or another takes Byrde from loving family man to cruel criminal.
“That’s who we all are,” he says, “just a couple of steps left or right and you could be doing something embarrassingly funny or tragically dramatic. We’re all just trying to stay in the middle of the road and function in society but when the wheels start to wobble a little bit you can get into something that’s interesting.”
In a world that seems permanently wobbly, Ozark’s themes parallel current concerns, putting a spotlight on the kind of communities that were key in electing Trump but usually ignored by an entertainment industry based on the coasts of the country.
“Byrde goes to this rural area and thinks he can ‘big city’ these people into his own agenda and it’s a terrible miscalculation,” Bateman says. “That parallels what we went through with our election. The centre of the country is certainly to be reckoned with.
“There is a large group of people that have a certain way in which they look upon how a country should be run and what our standing should be in the world. That is something we are waking up to, and trying to learn how to braid that into the coastal point of view.”
How does Marty Byrde learn to engage with these people? “Basically, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. He has to learn how to adapt and work inside their system.”
In an exploration of the American Dream, and all that represents, at the very beginning of Ozark, Marty Byrde states that ‘money is a measuring device – a measure of a man’s choices’. A billionaire in the White House seems the ultimate confirmation of that.
There’s a bill to be paid by anybody if you cut a corner
“I don’t know,” counters Bateman. “There’s a bill to be paid by anybody if you cut a corner. Sometimes it’s just later and you are able to accrue a lot more treasure before you have to pay your bill.
“I think that’s why a large number of people in this country, and I’m sure around the world, are fascinated by Trump right now. People are really excited for this guy with all his arrogance and bluster to be caught and to be stopped. Everyone just can’t wait for him to get what’s his.
“America loves a good story about somebody rising up from the ashes and making something of their lives but they really love the downfall of someone who has bullied their way to the top. It’s certainly captured the interests of this country.”
One thing’s for sure, the final episode of the Trump saga will be unmissable TV.
Ozark is on Netflix