The title might be “Griselda” and the promotion all about Sofia Vergara, but this limited series devoted to a real-life drug kingpin could easily be dubbed “Narcos,” Season 4. Having a female protagonist in the 1970s and ‘80s does filter the narrative through a misogynistic prism, but despite being generally watchable, the story of a woman nicknamed “The Godmother” feels like one of those offers you can refuse.
After a title card in which Pablo Escobar offers an admiring quote, “Griselda” opens with its frantic title character, Griselda Blanco, fleeing from Medellin to Miami with her three sons.
Left behind – for reasons fleshed out later – is her abusive husband, although as the real brains behind the operation, she’s eager to build her own business with a foothold in the US, with only her wits, guts and a single brick of cocaine to get the party started.
Described as a fictionalized telling of Blanco’s tale, the series follows Griselda as she finds initial help from her friend Carmen (Vanessa Ferlito), who runs a travel agency but wants nothing to do with the illicit enterprise. Of course, getting that off the ground requires overcoming the skepticism of local drug lords, who don’t take her seriously at first, with some of them soon learning that’s a bad idea the hard way.
Vergara dons enough makeup to render her considerably less glamorous than her “Modern Family” image, although early accounts calling her “unrecognizable” must be from people who don’t know what Sofia Vergara looks like.
Next to the attention devoted to Vergara’s personal life, her turn here is a strong dramatic portrayal and showcase, somewhat undercut by how the story beats slip a little too easily into “Scarface” territory as Griselda’s spectacular rise and lavish lifestyle eventually give way to paranoia and the inevitable fall.
The same applies to a subplot that’s too on the nose, with a female detective (Juliana Aidén Martinez) who keeps pushing her skeptical bosses to investigate rumors of a woman occupying an increasingly pivotal role in the drug trade, while facing her own version of the institutional patriarchy at every turn.
The cops and criminals, in other words, are just different sides of the same coin, especially as seen through the overt sexism of those macho cultures in this era. In that context, it’s possible to be historically accurate without feeling particularly insightful.
With a production team that unites Vergara with “Narcos” writer/producer Eric Newman and director Andrés Baiz, “Griselda” is, as expected, dark and brutal, reflecting a world in which crossing the wrong people meant risking the harshest possible retaliation.
Still, as the series spans years and various crises, “Griselda” becomes the least compelling – albeit unintended – addition to the “Narcos” universe, a solid but almost by-the-numbers exercise. Chalk that up in part to the fact that in both TV and the drug trade, the product doesn’t always deliver as much of a kick if you hit the same stuff too often.
“Griselda” premieres January 25 on Netflix.
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