’90s nostalgia is either flourishing or metastasizing, maybe both. We’re right in that meaty part of the twenty-year curve, an odd time indeed—hitting stride, approaching saturation, still some left on the bone, and clinging to that honeymoon phase before self-loathing kicks in. Turns out, this precise balance is an unstable sweet-spot, one where atrocity and miscarriages of justice are fodder for campy-cum-crackerjack entertainment, then mistaken for prestige. As we lurch toward critical mass, we come face-to-face with nostalgia at its most baroque. This turn of the wheel betrays the cracks in the axle—we’re recycling recycling, replaying a nostalgia-drenched near-past and generating a meta-wistful spiral like it’s expected or something.
An army of Seinfeldian avatars—clad in tacky, ill-fitting casual-wear, jeans, sweaters, and white sneakers—march from the recognizably bizarre crypto-normcore heyday across our retinas on the reg. No wonder Larry David’s scripts fretted about clothing so intensely—he saw the recursive, irony-soaked future (and syndication potential) from miles out. We can feign fawning affection for the ’80s all we want; it’s really the ’80s by way of the ’90s by way of our enlightened new-millennium aught-’10s mentality—hindsight filtered through hindsight filtered through pastiche.
Slot Narcos at the turn. Credit this Netflix original for amping the gauche at odd intervals to create a rippling normcore dissonance. For the most part, it plays like a straight thriller, cops-and-robbers shoot-’em-up. The psychopath kingpin at the center, Pablo Escobar, effects every move on the board—and it does revel in his surveying the kingdom—but, his uber-’90s attire and absurdly accented gut are characters unto themselves. Season two hit some strange ambient ideal where nostalgia meets retro kitsch gawking meets semi-parody meets handsome drama—the square peg of ’80s action brought up to slacker standards of outdatedness and fit in the round hole of the current esteemed-drama-dominant landscape.
The caricaturish garb either makes the frequent massacres more digestible—skewed-down to cartoonish villainy—or more jarring—extremism adjacent to everyman posturing. This unstuck antagonist seems to be actively vying with the visual palate and costuming, trying to course menace and danger through a sea of ugly taste and tacky patters. Camp and period piece converge to spawn a mutant series that’s recognizably of-the-moment. Add to this a propensity to go rogue and splice in actual footage (and a defeatist, expository narrator) as a spine. The crooked vertebrae also happen to undermine the theatricality—like a bone-tissue disorder that could reasonably be called a conscience.
Pablo’s sartorial modus operandi combines mall-chic with sociopathy. While his adversaries play ring-around-the-rosy in expensive suits, he house-hops in off-the-shelf duds. The unpretentious, future-thrift clothing is meant to cast Pablo as an everyman, a self-styled champion of the people who, just as a matter of course, routinely orders large-scale bombings to solidify his business affairs. Though, it’s worth noting that, in the gap between now and then, the polarity has reversed—normcore representing appropriation more than modesty. This inversion is built-in, crystallizing the endless, empty layers of urbane symbolism that dominate cultural identity, and leveraging this to complicate character—a hastily appointed Robin Hood with deep ambivalence for the faceless populace. Add in the fact that he looks like a gringo tourista—an aspiring country club-ready fat cat American to contrast displaced, slowly-assimilating DEA agent Steve Murphy, clad in leather jackets, slicked back hair, and shades— and the confusing textures coarsen into eccentricities.
Play all Pablo’s scenes together in a row—the pleasure receptor dominant mode favored by the streaming Gods—and his life and character look starkly sedate in isolation. A mesmeric effort is afoot to garner some sympathy for the flabby devil and to craft some simpatico insulation for the voyeur, apart from the supreme, global-scale human misery wreaked in his name. In the trenches of Medellín and beyond, there are bombed planes, all-out assaults on Colombia’s congress, devastating explosions within earshot of the presidential palace, Search Bloc massacres, mountains of collateral damage, and a worldwide narcotics epidemic fueling warring coca empires. Somehow, between monstrous acts of domestic terrorism and carnage, Narcos is attempting to humanize its house sociopath by observing him lounging around the house, smoking dope, playing with his kids, singing in the shower, getting earfuls from the missus, swinging sullenly, playing video games, eating meals with his family and mother, mending fences with his father, and more. All the while, he favors off-brand sweatshirts, jeans, and tennis shoes, and he keeps getting paunchier.
He’s domesticated, in other words—a feral dog in a knit sweater, always a reliably depressing image. He spends the majority hunched, pouting, and sad. Narcos all but pokes fun at his disaffection, starting successive episodes with Pablo dispassionately going about routines, drifting off into daydreams, lackadaisically playing with his oblivious children before henchmen come and he begrudgingly talks business. The show is trying to penetrate the mind of a sociopath for the ages, kind of. It’s not exactly trying to soften him, just insulate and marginalize his orders from their macro consequences. Season deux reaches its unequivocal climax in a long-take siege on Pablo and his familia. Wearing his lame “Masters Golf” sweatshirt, he unloads clips out the windows of his house, downing attackers that breech the domicile. It’s an odd image to behold: The seventh richest man in the world, in full weekend warrior garb, in survival mode.
Are we guided to underestimate the character as a character, as a monster from the recent-but-identifiable-but-removed past? Are we meant to pity him, to side with him and overlook the faceless masses in kind? Are we primed to see his commoner-affectations as symbolic of the depths of evil lurking even in sedate country clubs and cul-de-sacs? Is there a contemporary allegory to be had? Whatever the intention, the untethered nostalgia and binge-ready, data-driven-streaming-synergy plot-mechanics perfectly suit our modernity. In reality, Pablo Escobar is credited with the deaths of thousands. In the intoxicating tropicalia of Narcos, the degree to which horror sinks in is a matter of sifting through the empathy-killing lull of nostalgia, waves of narcotizing drab irony, piecing together long-winded filmic shorthands, allaying binge-blunted details and themes, and trying like hell to not tune-out and gloss-over the genuine article, legit-’90s, clipped-in and juxtaposed in pure, uncut broadcast grain. At heart, cognitive dissonance may just be the latest tactical mechanism to stifle embedding and to keep one pressing the red arrow.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.