The Netflix series Narcos launched its third season in Bogotá, Colombia, allowing media to explore the city that’s been the show’s host for three years. Along with city tours, coffee tastings, fine dining and a premiere after-party at the lavish Mansion Francesa, we had a chance to learn why Narcos is so addictive, and why it’s likely to keep going for several more seasons.
1. It’s riveting, with each episode packing a punch.
When I saw Narcos executive producer Peter Friedlander and director Andi Baiz at the roundtable interview in Bogotá, I had a bone to pick: I’d had to skip the Netflix dinner the previous night because I was busy binge-watching Season 3. I asked if bingeing was built into the design of Netflix.
“Our intention is to create addictive storytelling, we don’t necessarily say you need to binge it,” says Friedlander with a smile. “We just want to give the audience control over the way that they view; if they choose to binge, so be it!”
Spoken like a true purveyor of addictive entertainment.
The Netflix strategy has been simple since the very start: release the whole season at once, on demand, let people watch at their own pace. It works. But it means you might skip meals now and then.
“It’s fun to hear stories about how people consume it, because I think we’re looking at storytelling in a different way because of it,” Friedlander continues. “You always hear, ‘I wanted to watch just one hour, but I watched four, it changed my opinion about the show.’ The platform gives people more ability to immerse themselves.”
Director Baiz adds: “It’s a new diet: Watch the show, lose three pounds.”
Somehow I don’t think that will become the network’s new tagline.
2. It’s topical, especially here in the Philippines. Show creator Eric Newman has said Narcos will not stop “until cocaine stops.”
I asked the two what Philippine President Duterte could learn from a show like Narcos. Director Baiz got right into it, echoing actor Pedro Pascal’s views earlier: “My personal opinion, the war on drugs is a health issue, not a police issue. Because the word ‘war’ is in it, there has to be a winner and a loser. If anything, it’s losing — authorities are losing that war on drugs. The money and efforts should go into health and social programs, not into police programs. My opinion is that Narcos does a good job of exposing the hypocrisy of that war.”
Friedlander was more cagey: “I would say Narcos is meant to tell the story of this particular story, and I don’t think the intention is to extrapolate lessons as it is to walk through what happened and what these characters have gone through; I certainly wouldn’t say the design of the show” was to preach lessons to world leaders waging drug wars.
Yet former Colombian President César Gaviria, who fought Escobar and drugs for over a decade, wrote in The New York Times that Duterte is “now repeating my mistakes.” Typically, Duterte responded by calling Gaviria an “idiot.” Is the show an expression of how frustrating this war can be?
“Certainly how messy it is and how it sort of effects everyone in the country and beyond,” Friedlander agrees. Future seasons of Narcos may even go back in time to the origins of the drug trade, perhaps travel to Asia or Afghanistan where poppies are grown to make heroin. “As creators of the show present us different possibilities of drama and storytelling, we’re open to all forms of exploration,” the Narcos producer says.
3. Even if you’re only catching up now, Narcos 3 is a standalone season, with mostly new characters and storyline, focusing on new bad guys.
When I enter the interview room, Michael Stahl-Hyde and Matt Whelan, the two actors playing Pedro Pascal’s new DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) recruits in Season 3, are seated on a couch together. “Pedro Pascal’s been talking sh*t about you in the next room,” I mention, trying to get them to flip, maybe even trash-talk their co-actor, like those police interrogation scenes Narcos does so well. It works, a little. “No, we were the new guys, we were fed and taken care of, everybody would ask if we want coffee,” says Spanish-speaking American Stahl-Hyde, who plays Agent Chris Feistl (a retired real-life DEA agent who now works as a consultant for the show). “They had Pedro hanging lights, doing things like that; it was hard for him.” Collegial rivalry aside, Stahl-Hyde and Whalen (a towering New Zealander who plays DEA Agent Daniel van Ness) had a lot to learn shooting in Bogotá and Cali.
“I think what the show asked us to bring was this sense of tension and vigilance which Chris Feistl had to face,” says Stahl-Hyde. Whalen adds: “There isn’t a lot of time to create a back story coming in hard like that.” His character is ex-military, a paratrooper signed on to the DEA and comfortable with a desk job — until he gets recruited along with Feistl by Agent Peña, and the hunt for the Cali Gentlemen is on.
Both their characters are based on real people. Whalen’s character is modeled on Dave Mitchell, who remains active in the DEA, so they couldn’t use his actual name on the show, “which I think he was kind of bummed about,” says Whalen. Immersing themselves in Cali locales helped them jump right into the new characters. “Being here was the biggest part, being on location, visiting the apartments where the Cali godfathers actually lived,” says Stahl-Hyde. They even got good intel from the real Feistl: “He’d give us weapons training, how to clear a room, anti-surveillance tactics, like they’d always drive at night so they could see headlights if someone was following them.”
4. It’s got Latin actors, directors and locations for maximum authenticity.
At Bogotá premiere night, Narcos executive producer Peter Friedlander, Michael Stahl-David, Pêpê Rapazote, Pedro Pascal, director Andi Baiz, Matt Whelan, Taliana Vargas, Matias Varela, José María Yazpik, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Francisco Denis are joined by Colombian cast members.
Though some complained about Wagner Moura’s Brazilian accent (playing Colombian Escobar in Seasons 1 and 2), Netflix has assembled a great team of South American and Latin talent for Narcos. We spoke with Taliana Vargas, a former Miss Colombia runner-up turned actress, who plays the wife of cartel head of security Jorge Salcedo (a crafty Matias Varela). She talked about how her character projected the “true dynamic of Colombian women — very strong, at the center of the household.” “She’s not just a quiet housewife, she pushes back with her husband, like in a true marriage,” when he finds it difficult to sever ties with the Four Gentlemen.
Similarly, Francisco Denis, who plays cartel brother Miguel Orejuela, says along with the inventive cursing (“It feels so good to swear!”), the show captures Colombia’s “sense of loyalty and family connections,” like the ones between the four drug lords who “all grew up together.” Family connections like The Godfather, presumably.
Other actors this season bring their own particular Latin flavor: Miguel Angel Silvestre is a popular Spanish soap actor playing the cartel’s accountant; Jose Maria Yazpik is a Mexican actor playing the “Lord of the Skies,” helping the Cali cartel smuggle drugs into the US; while Portuguese actor Pêpê Rapazote plays Chepe, head of the New York-Cali operations. They note Narcos scripts would often come three days before shooting, which kept the energy up and everybody on their toes.
Not only Bogotá shines in this season, but Cali as well, according to Baiz, who began his career shooting the Colombian version of Breaking Bad, called Metastasis. Baiz’s favorite episode to direct this season was the opener, “The Kingpin Strategy,” in which the sexual orientation of drug lord Pacho (Alberto Ammann) is revealed in a dance scene that ends in brutal retribution against an enemy. “I’m from Cali, so I wanted to do something to present the flavor of Cali,” he says. “Pacho’s dance scene was one of my favorite I’ve ever directed. I had complete control over that scene. I chose every single extra for their dancing abilities, I chose the location, the songs they dance to, the wardrobe, I chose the actor playing the boyfriend. It’s an episode I love, not only that scene, but as an opportunity to showcase Cali.”
Baiz praises the Netflix approach to producing shows. “Definitely one of the beautiful things is it gives support to filmmakers with a specific vision. Narcos does a great job in doing filmmaking that’s not conventional. If there’s poetry in it, the way shots are designed, it feels really fresh, like it’s being done in front of your eyes. There’s never a thing of, ‘Audiences aren’t going to like this.’ It’s more trust in the artistic process.”
5. It’s even grittier than Seasons 1 and 2. Some complained that Narcos humanized drug kingpin Pablo Escobar too much. No danger of that here. As suave as the “Four Gentlemen” are, they’re also ruthless and their actions can never be mistaken for altruistic, as the line was sometimes blurred with Escobar. You learn more about the nitty-gritty of drug operations, and we’re presented with a brilliant cat-and-mouse setup between security expert Salcedo and the Cali cartel that doesn’t let up. Vamanos! Watch it!
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