The best joke in the third season of “Ozark” — possibly in the entire series — comes from the tour manager for REO Speedwagon.
The hit-making 1980s band is playing a dental convention at a casino whose owner, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), takes a look at the band’s tour rider and tries to convince the crew to rent equipment for the show from a local vendor, which would “get some money into the local economy.” When the manager explains patiently that bands don’t do that, Marty offers to throw in an extra $100,000; all he needs, he says, is a signature on a couple of invoices.
The tour manager makes a phone call to run this up the chain, saying: “This guy wants us to help launder some money.”
Which is, of course, precisely what Marty is trying to do. The band wouldn’t actually use the equipment that had been (over)paid for, but having a record of payment for a service not actually rendered or a good not actually needed is a way to funnel ill-gotten cash through a seemingly ordinary transaction.
Getting dirty money into the economy — you remember the economy, right? — is how it gets cleaned. And a falsified rider for a touring band — you remember concerts, right? — would probably be a great way to do it.
I’m getting ahead of myself. “Ozark,” whose new season appeared on Netflix at the end of March, is in some respects a standard drama entry in the late period of streaming Peak TV, or whatever this is called now. Its protagonist is a Complicated Male Antihero (Marty) whose morals fluctuate as the situation requires, so long as his family stays unharmed.
As situations go, Marty’s is a doozy. He’s a Chicago-based money manager whose firm, we learn, has spent years laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel. Unbeknownst to Marty, his business partner has been skimming from the cartel’s take, which, it turns out, is a pretty good way to get yourself shot and dissolved in a barrel of acid.
In the series pilot, which must rank among the most harrowing episodes of TV ever produced, Marty convinces the druglords to let him live by promising to set up a larger laundering operation in a sleepy resort town along the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Within days, he uprooted his family — including his wife, Wendy (a magnificent Laura Linney) and their two teenage kids — and set up a business empire large enough to clean millions of drug dollars but small enough to avoid excess attention.
It goes about as smoothly as you’d think. The juxtaposition of cartel money into semi-rural Missouri gives the series its elevator pitch: “Breaking Bad” (family guy working for drug kingpins, minus several seasons of buildup) meets “Justified” (colorful backwoods criminals not taking kindly to well-heeled outsiders).
The premise results in a series that often feels like a game of prestige-TV bingo: we have family dysfunction, white-collar business intrigue, FBI procedural suspense, rural desperation, class warfare, small-time criminality, high-stakes drug-war violence and gestures toward social commentary.
There is also flashy direction, a lot of it by Bateman himself, and a genuinely great cast, the standout being Julia Garner, who won an Emmy for her turn as Ruth Langmore, an ambitious local from a family of redneck troublemakers who becomes Marty’s trusted confidante.
But whenever I feel like giving myself over to “Ozark” unreservedly, some ludicrous plot development removes me from its world. In season three, that’s the May-December romance between Ruth’s brainy cousin Wyatt (Charlie Tahan) and Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery), the widow of a local heroin kingpin, clearly contrived just to keep their characters around.
What’s there to complain about, though? We’re all just, you know, being kept around these days, anyhow. The new “Ozark” season’s opportune release makes it the ideal quarantine binge for a captive audience not too picky about expenditures of time, eager to look at something besides our phones, willing to entertain fantasies of what it would have been like to outsmart an economy that might never come back.