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What Does 'Ozark' Even Mean? Netflix Series Showrunner And Missouri Viewers Discuss

Jason Bateman, Skylar Gaertner, Laura Linney and Sofia Hublitz in 'Ozark.'

Who else is watching "Ozark"?

The Netflix show set in Missouri provoked lively conversation on a recent edition of KCUR’s Central Standard, where host Gina Kaufmann’s guests included one of the program’s showrunners, Chris Mundy, along with Lake of the Ozarks native Michael Duggan and myself.

We were interested in how the show represents Missouri — and the larger urban-rural divide in the Midwest.

Before I talk more about all that, for those of you who aren’t yet watching, here’s a synopsis:

The ten-episode crime thriller stars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney as an upper class Chicago couple who flee with their children to Lake of the Ozarks after running into trouble with a Mexican drug cartel. Bateman (who is also one of the program’s producers) plays Marty, a skilled money launderer unknowingly caught up in a partner’s embezzling.

Though he’s never been to the Lake of the Ozarks, Marty buys time by convincing the drug lord that he can launder $8 million in an area with “more coastline than all of California” and a massive, cash-rich summer tourism industry. Complications arise when he proceeds with various schemes to “wash” the cartel’s money through local businesses including a lodge, a strip club, a funeral parlor and a river-based church.

Marty and his wife move in with an air of superiority and entitlement, and they’re startled when they’re outsmarted at every turn, particularly by Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) a 19-year-old, golden-ringleted criminal prodigy who reigns over her uncles and male cousins, keeping her family financially afloat and planning for their future.

Or, as Mundy put it, "It's about people making increasingly bad decisions, and underestimating what they're getting into, and trying to somehow extricate themselves from the situation and continually making it worse as we often all do."

To quickly acclimate viewers to the Lake and its residents, the show's writers depend on recognizable types of characters.

“A lot of friends that I’ve talked to who have watched the show, their initial reaction was, ‘Gosh, they made us look like a bunch of rednecks,’" Duggan said. "And even though there is that element down there, it’s not all like that.”

The show's Lake of the Ozarks natives almost universally speak in an accent commonly considered working class, white, southern and less-educated, associations that come from generations of characters in films and TV shows like "Deliverance," "The Hills Have Eyes" and "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Representations like this are useful for movie and TV-show creators — they save time and reduce the need for boring exposition — they also perpetuate dangerous stereotypes.

Mundy acknowledged this.

“It’s always hard when you’re pushing (characters) to extremes and they’re doing criminal activity. You’re always worried people there are going to be worried they’re being labeled as all like that. I don’t think everyone in Northern New Jersey is in the mob, but if you watched 'The Sopranos,' you might think that they were," he said. "You’re not painting everyone with the same brush, you’re finding these particular people.”

All of which made us think about the idea of “place as character.” The media scholar Myles McNutt writes about the role “place” plays in narrative, which our first caller, Linda from Kansas City, noticed.

"The lake serves as another character," said Linda, who grew up going to the Ozarks on family vacations. "While all the scenes are not local, (the show) still grasps that immensity, and all the coves and wonder and magic of the lake as well." 

McNutt suggests moving past “place as character” to think more about how locations function in complex narratives: using “place as narrative background” as opposed to “place as narrative engine.”

Places in the background of a narrative might be distinctive and beautiful and mood-setting, but not necessarily critical to how the narrative develops — police procedurals or courtroom dramas, for example, can easily move between a variety of locations.

When a place is a narrative engine, though, the stories depend on it. Nearly every episode of FX’s "Fargo" is set in North Dakota or Minnesota (though its primary production locations are in Canada), and the show's story requires a landscape and climate, particular relationships between towns and cities, and distinctive ways that local citizens, businesses and law enforcement interact. Regional accents and “Minnesota nice” become critical to storylines.

"Ozark" drifts between these two uses of place. Obviously, like "Fargo," it uses location as the title, while also like "Fargo" it is mostly not produced on location. "Ozark" was mostly filmed Atlanta, with occasional overhead establishing shots of the “Magic Dragon.”

References to waterways and landscape and the lake's history are regionally specific, particularly with the introduction of the “hillbilly” Snell family a few episodes in. But several other characters — particularly members of the Langmore Family — ultimately move beyond stereotypes into more fully and poignantly developed characters.

And many of the factors pushing the story forward — drug trafficking, money laundering, discord between tourists and townies, family drama, class anxiety — could happen anywhere.

While some of us might be disappointed that the show wasn't filmed on location, many more of us probably would have been disappointed if it had been. Besides the producers' financial considerations, Mundy pointed out how disruptive it would have been to film there during the summer — they would have had to close off entire portions of the lake to control shooting.

And, Duggan said, the producers generally got the place right, not just the different pockets of places where scenes take place, but also the overview shots of big second homes owned by middle-class and upper-class people from places like Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis and Omaha. And the politics, the on-the-water church services and the way kids ride around not on bicycles but on WaveRunners.

"Listening to Jason Bateman and Laura Linney not only say the names of the towns, but they were so accurate with the names of the subdivisions we spent a lot of time in," Duggan said. "They really did the research, and that was really neat for a lot of us to see that."

Listen to the entire Central Standard discussion here.

Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture.  She can be reached at melissalenos@gmail.com

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