It's not unusual for the first episode of any series to be a little boggy with backstory. Yes, we're assured, there's some exciting plot stuff coming our way, but not before we've waded through some turgid, unconvincing expositional dialogue that tells you exactly who everyone is, what they want, and why. The first episode of Narcos, the new Netflix Originals series that follows the likes of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, is pretty much all backstory. But as the series is about Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, which swamped the US with cocaine, this is fascinating backstory you'll lap up.
The 10-part series, directed by Brazil's Jose Padilha, centres on the rise of Escobar from happy-go-lucky Colombian smuggler to filthily rich and internationally renowned drug lord, as seen through the eyes of a real-
life US Drugs Enforcement Administration agent, Steve Murphy, who was sent to Bogota to capture or, better, kill him. But first we have to understand Escobar's rise to and methods of power, which means extensive explanations of trade routes, smuggling techniques and even a little potted guide to how to make your own cocaine.
Escobar is played with soft-faced menace by Brazilian Wagner Moura, who starred in Padilha's Elite Squad, while the role of Murphy, the show's de facto narrator, is taken by Boyd Holbrook, a US actor with the curious quality of resembling both Ryan Gosling and Mackenzie Crook. Murphy is teamed with Javier Peña, played by Pedro Pascal, whom eagle-eyed viewers might recognise as the ill-fated Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones. Unlike HBO's fantasy bonkbuster, however, Narcos doesn't lure viewers in with lashings of sex and violence in the first episode, though it unleashes it with a vengeance in episode two – notably with the arrival of Mexican actress and future Bond siren Stephanie Sigman as a seductive journalist. (If that sounds like a lot of lesser-knowns, it takes about 10 minutes for Luis Guzmán to make an appearance.)
Yet the strength of Narcos is its resolute commitment to moral uncertainty. Escobar hangs his enemies from trees, but he also gives wodges of bank notes to the poor (admittedly because he's run out of places to hide them). The DEA guns down cartel foot soldiers, but it also executes innocent bystanders. There are no heroes here. All of which sets things up for a knotty, gnarly and gritty drama that will have you hooked.
Narcos will be available on Netflix on 28 August