Only a handful of American states have a firm state identity. Texas comes to mind. So too does Iowa, even Kansas.
Missouri, however, has been a bi-polar state from the beginning. During the Civil War, southern Missouri was a union stronghold, and northern Missouri leaned towards the South. Kansas City and St. Louis were on opposite sides of the same war. Even today each struggles to define the state, and neither succeeds.
Now, thanks to the popular Netflix series “Ozark,” back for its second season, Missouri seems to be finding the identity that it has long been lacking. In fact, “Ozark” does for Missouri what the “Sopranos” did for New Jersey.
In a nutshell, “Ozark” tells the tale of a suburban Chicago family forced by circumstances to seek shelter at the Lake of the Ozarks. Although filmed largely in Georgia, the series is set at the lake, which, we are told repeatedly, has more miles of shoreline than California. The tourism people may not be pleased by the image of the lake the show presents, but it should increase tourist traffic.
Upon arriving, the Byrdes–Marty (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Laura Linney), and their two adolescent children–are inclined to patronize the locals. They have been conditioned to think in stereotypes, and, on the surface at least, the Ozark people the Byrdes meet honor those stereotypes. Given that Marty’s business is not exactly legal, the Missourians he encounters skew redneck.
Then they start talking. Although the twang is there, the language is lively and sophisticated. In one intriguing scene early in the series, Marty encounters the criminally degenerate Langmore family. Its members having the distinct odeur of white trash about them, Marty feels free to lecture them on the folly of stealing his money–spoiler alert–money that he is laundering for a Mexican cartel.
Then out of the shadows steps Ruth, the jerry-curled 19-year-old bottle blonde who is the family’s criminal mastermind. “You know,” she says slyly, “case could be made that the disappearance of Mr. Byrde and the redistribution of this money constitutes a good thing. He is aiding and abetting the sale of drugs. Who knows how much pain and misery he has caused?”
“Would cause,” elaborates her uncle, projecting the pain and misery into the future.
“Would cause,” says Ruth, “to kids even.”
At the end of season one, viewers learn that to call a lake resident a “redneck” may have severe consequences.
Season two begins in Kansas City or a facsimile thereof. More complex than the first season, and a little less plausible, season two deals with the “KC mob,” riverboat gambling, Missouri politics, and homegrown heroin trafficking. Just another ordinary day at the lake.
Like so much on television, there is little moral redeeming value to the show. Its only stab at virtue is presenting a nuclear family struggling to stay intact. In this regard, Marty Byrde joins a small crew of other neo-traditional TV fathers like Walter White, Tony Soprano, and, yes, Homer Simpson.