This month alone, we’ll be treated to the third season of Netflix’s now Pablo Escobar-less drama Narcos, to Javier Bardem’s take on that same Colombian druglord in Loving Pablo, and to the second season of Univision’s own drug trade-related banner series, El Chapo. In other words, narco-dramas are still all the rage. From Hollywood and multi-national telenovela production companies to indie producers, everyone is all too eager to jumpstart any kind of project that can capitalize on what seems like a never-ending thirst for stories about drug cartels.
That said, not all narco-dramas are created equal. More than any other buzzy contemporary genre, these shows and films betray quite easily the many biases that characterize any discussion about the so-called “war on drugs.” Homegrown projects coming out of Colombia and Mexico, for example, feel very different than those coming out of the United States. Where the former, which tend to break and tweak known telenovela molds in the process, look like attempts at grappling with a bloodied history that can still be felt on the streets, the latter often privilege an north-of-the-border point of view that aims for a kind of global understanding of the drug trade that glorifies U.S. agencies and their efforts.
As with any fictionalized historical topic, narco-dramas must tackle head-on the conflict that comes with needing to balance entertainment value with historical accuracy, even when focusing on wholly fictional figures. Are audiences encouraged to root for the drug kingpin, or are they required to understand this world through an American DEA agent? Are they supposed to see everyone associated with the drug trade as violent thugs or as complicated characters driven by competing allegiances? These questions are never easy to answer, for they require a commitment to gray areas in regards to a topic many a government and citizenship will want you to understand as being all about black and white, good guys and bad guys, us versus them.
Looking at all of these narco-dramas together, and comparing their focuses, ends up being a fascinating cultural litmus test for what kinds of stories are being sold, by whom, and to what end.
We really could’ve listed many more, but if you’re into programming about drug cartels (or want to examine these shows’ cultural biases), we’ve assembled an exhaustive list for you to pick and choose from. From low-budget Mexican dramas shot on the fly and ambitious Colombian telenovelas that cost a pretty penny, to bilingual prestige productions making stars out of their actors and female-driven American remakes that hoped to tell new stories in this male-driven world; you can find a mere sampling of what’s out there in this ever-growing genre.