Saturday, June 6, 2020

ZeroZeroZero | Lefsetz Letter

If this were on Netflix, it would be a big hit.

Every show has a backstory, and with “ZeroZeroZero” it’s that the creative force is Robert Saviano, the same guy who did “Gomorrah,” which I haven’t seen yet, because it left Netflix.

It’s unclear whether you can watch it on Sundance Now. Well, when you click through it says “Not Available,” which I guess is definitive, but why is it still on the site anyway?

Turns out “Gomorrah” is caught up in rights issues, the wrenching transition of ownership of the Weinstein Company. At least that’s what my e-mail says. I’m not gonna research every damn thing, I’m gonna rely on the gossip. Which, of course, begs the question what else I’ll rely on the gossip for.

So somehow Amazon has screwed up its foray into streaming television. At this late date, people seem to know, at least subscribers, that it’s baked into Amazon Prime. But maybe it’s if something is completely free, or feels free, it gets no respect. Or maybe it’s the less than sexy interface. Yes, I used that word, it’s the first that came to mind, although I used to wince when everybody else used it. It’s just that Amazon’s interface is dull. And scrolling leads to incomprehensibility. In an effort to be all-encompassing, Amazon Prime is confusing. You see everything is not free, many shows require you to subscribe to a further service, which catches the viewer in the tyranny of choice where they go back to Netflix for a seamless experience.

Netflix hypes the show it’s promoting right on the home screen. That’s what you’re confronted with first. Along with what’s new, what’s hot…

It’s not that simple on Amazon Prime.

But people found “ZeroZeroZero.” Just like they found “Gomorrah.” Why wasn’t it as big as “Narcos,” is it that it’s in a foreign language, or that Pablo Escobar was famous? Yes, there’s been less excitement about “Narcos” in Mexico, but it’s getting pretty good.

And there are narcos in “ZeroZeroZero.”

It’s really damn hard to do comedy, so much of what appeals on streaming services is drama. Police procedurals. Crime. I’m not exactly sure why viewers are drawn to these shows. Is it a vicarious experience, as in “there but by the grace of god go I,” or “I’m too timid to live this life but I like to dream” or is it that these shows are easier to make, I’m not sure.

But I found out about “ZeroZeroZero” from Michael Rosenblatt. He raved. But that’s not enough for me, TV series take up so much time, I quizzed him further, he doubled-down, and I ventured in.

Now the thing about “ZeroZeroZero” is it’s a movie, albeit eight hours long. It’s what we used to go to the theatre for, and sometimes still do, at least when the theatres were still open, not overcrowded with those seeking escape in the fantasy world of superheroes. “ZeroZeroZero” is big screen entertainment. The visuals are rich. The locations exotic. The acting first rate. The story…

“ZeroZeroZero” is entertainment. There are no lessons, no deeper meaning. Oh, you can dig some metaphors up, but that’s not what it’s really about. “ZeroZeroZero” is a ride for adults. Who’ve seen some of the world, know to a degree how things work, and want a story to take them out of their regular life.

There are three main locations. Mexico, Africa and Italy. And they’re beautiful and fascinating. I’m afraid to go to Mexico because of the lawlessness of the cartels, but the landscape is overwhelming and the life… I like places that are different. When you’ve still got dirt roads, when you’re still developing, that’s when I’m interested. Once again, my trip to Bogota back in 2013 was the one that impressed me most, that I think of most. It wasn’t all cushy, you could get shot, you could die, but that make you feel so alive.

And in Africa…

When you’re outside of the U.S. the same rules don’t apply, you don’t always feel safe. Which is a good reason not to go, but it’s also a good reason to journey abroad, it’s exhilarating, you’ve got your wits about you, you feel alive.

So, “ZeroZeroZero” is about a drug deal.

Mexico provides the cocaine. The Lynwood family from New Orleans is the broker doing the shipping and the Mafia in Calabria, Italy is the customer.

Only there are struggles in each location. In New Orleans, a son has Huntington’s, which you’ll remember took the life of Woody Guthrie. In Italy there’s a turf war in the family. In Mexico…there’s a power struggle.

Actually, it’s what happens in Mexico that is most vivid. Because the drug wars are real. People do die.

So on some level “ZeroZeroZero” is “The Wages of Fear,” i.e. a story about the dangerous journey of an illicit substance, not that cocaine is going to explode.

So the usual rules of visual entertainment don’t necessarily apply in “ZeroZeroZero.” Those who can’t die, the heroes of the story, the focus, sometimes do.

And there’s this weird construct where events are foreshadowed, and then you go back and see what really happened. It’s hard to explain, but it happens right in the first episode, you’ll be caught off guard, but then you’ll expect it.

And the acting is superb.

Andrea Riseborough as Emma Lynwood is cunning and can be an iron fist in a velvet glove and can also exhibit emotion.

Dane DeHaan is one of the few Americans in the series, he looks like Leonardo DiCaprio, but is more believable. DiCaprio always looks preternaturally young to me, it’s always Leo, and he always seems too soft and smooth to play the role.

Harold Torres as Manuel…

It takes you a while to figure out his loyalties. But ultimately his strength and intelligence shine through. We’re used to leaders being self-satisfied hotheads, but Manuel is not. He’s got a vision, he’s calm and collected…ultimately you can’t take your eyes off him.

So, at first the stories are intermingled. But as you progress, locations/stories can make up nearly an entire episode. And this allows you to go into depth, and it’s so satisfying.

And there are constantly roadblocks to execution. Some seem phony, but most seem real.

So what do we have here?

Kind of a seventies movie. Like “French Connection.” Not with the same plot, but with a driving story that takes you around the world, where you align yourself with the characters and you’re not quite sure how it’s all going to play out.

Now the most prominent show Amazon Prime has is “Mrs. Maisel.” And I dig it, but it’s not for everyone.

“Mozart in the Jungle” won Golden Globes, but that was about the only publicity the series got. And when you watched it…it wasn’t THAT good.

But “ZeroZeroZero” is something different.

Oh yeah, they don’t explain the title in the series. But it’s easily Googlable. I’ll leave it to you.

The creation of shows, movies too, is a group effort. And it’s expensive. And you can find yourself in the middle of it and realize you veered off course and cannot get back on the right path. It’s different from music, which is best when it runs on sheer inspiration, and is unhobbled by too much input. And it takes much longer to make visual entertainment than audio. We’re always hungering for more.

Of that which we like.

But we don’t like that much.

I don’t know if there’ll be another season of “ZeroZeroZero.” It’s based on a book, and I don’t know where that book ends. Then again, they’ve been making James Bond movies for years with no books. But Bond is now a joke, about gadgets and big forces whereas “ZeroZeroZero” is a smaller story about people, and they’re not like you and me, but it illustrates how many stories there are on this globe, what makes the world turn.

So, when there’s a hit in America, there’s always a sequel, there’s always more, and it’s rarely as good as what came before.

It’s different overseas, it can be one and done.

But honestly, I’d like more from these characters, I want to see where they go, how their lives and organizations develop.

“ZeroZeroZero” is beyond HBO. Because of the production qualities. HBO is television, so they usually focus on talking. “ZeroZeroZero” paints on a big canvas. And it’s not “House of Cards,” it’s not throwing off lessons constantly, but you’ll get hooked, believe me.


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