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Review: Netflix's 'Narcos Mexico,' A Spinoff Of 'Narcos'


For three seasons, the Netflix TV series "Narcos" has traced the evolution of the Colombian drug cartels. Now a spinoff called "Narcos: Mexico" has debuted with the origin story of one of the first big Mexican cartels. Here's our critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: First, an admission - I am addicted to Netflix's "Narcos" series and couldn't wait to watch the new "Narcos: Mexico" not just because I love well-told tales about outlaws and gangsters - though I do - but because it explains our debilitating war on illegal drugs from a side we don't see often enough on American television, the side that lives south of the border.


SCOOT MCNAIRY: (As narrator) I'm going to tell you a story, but I'll be honest. It doesn't have a happy ending.

DEGGANS: "Narcos: Mexico," like every version of Netflix's series, begins with portentous words from a cynical narrator telling a dark tale.


MCNAIRY: (As narrator) It's about how a bunch of institutions - some you're supposed to trust - got together and started a war, the kind that's easy to forget is happening until you realize in the last 30 years in Mexico, it's killed half a million people.

DEGGANS: "Narcos: Mexico" jumps back in time to the 1980s when Mexican gangs were disorganized and the drug trade mostly focused on marijuana. American authorities weren't trying hard to stop them. That changed because of two men - hard-charging, ambitious Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Kiki Camarena, played by Michael Pena, and Felix Gallardo, a crafty ex-cop who's slipped into the dark side. Gallardo is played by "Star Wars" alum Diego Luna. Pena is perfect as Camarena, an aggressive agent working for the DEA when not many people, even police officers, knew what those initials meant. Camarena found that out the hard way when he was arrested by racist city police while working undercover in Fresno, Calif.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey, you ever hear of a DEA?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, it's like a drug enforcement agency or something.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Chico over here keeps saying he's working undercover for them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Looks like we picked up a whole team of undercovers.

MICHAEL PENA: (As Kiki Camarena) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, that's one of my guys.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, nothing personal, buddy - tough telling the good hombres from the bad sometimes.

PENA: (As Kiki Camarena) No, I get it, I get it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, groaning).

DEGGANS: That sound was Camarena punching the local cop. He would eventually transfer to a sleepy DEA office in Guadalajara. Turns out Felix Gallardo is there, too, uniting Mexican criminals into one giant drug smuggling operation. How did that work? I'll let the narrator fill you in.


MCNAIRY: (As narrator) The narcotics game was made of lone-wolf traffickers who purchased permission from the cops to run drugs in a particular city or territory. They called it the plaza system. So a scheme to convince a bunch of rival plazas led by trigger-happy sociopaths to work together, take direction from some other dirtbag - yeah, right.

DEGGANS: Some critics have hammered "Narcos" for the narration that leads viewers through most episodes, but I think it's necessary for the crash course on history and culture that the audience needs to really understand this story. "Narcos: Mexico" does an excellent job balancing two complex tales following Luna's Gallardo, a smart, smooth-talking operator who devolves into a ruthless kingpin, and Pena's Camarena, who's constantly fighting to get the DEA to take serious action in Mexico. The cartel's reaction leaves little doubt America has stumbled into a drug war it didn't even realize it was fighting.

Best of all, this season, which mostly features dialogue in Spanish, is a wonderful showcase for two talented Latinx actors who've long deserved a high-profile TV project. "Narcos: Mexico" is all that and more, a poignant lesson on the bloody history behind our modern war on drugs. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO AMARANTE SONG, "TUYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.