Suffering Through Amazon’s “Zero Zero Zero”

Andrea Riseborough in “Zero Zero Zero”

While socially isolating this weekend, I watched Amazon’s new original series Zero Zero Zero. To put it more accurately, I suffered through the series, if watching a streaming show from the comfort of an indoor mattress while eating Doritos can be called suffering (it can’t). Joking aside, the series is relentlessly, punishingly bleak. On the show, it’s not enough for a young Mexican soldier to be killed by his fellow soldiers for not being dirty, he also has to have a pretty, pregnant wife to leave behind as a widow. A boyish central protagonist has to have a degenerative disease in addition to having to fend off Islamic terrorists and Italian mobsters (you get the idea of this program’s broad implausibilities). I almost stopped watching the eight-part series after a group of Italian mafiaso slaughter a (computer generated) pig and drink its blood.

So why did I stick with such a gruesome and unpleasant program? Well, there is some major talent in this work both behind and in front of the camera. One of the show’s creators as well as the director of two of its episodes is Stefano Sollima, who directed the supremely underrated cartel war sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The international cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough, and Dane DeHaan, three performers who often choose interesting projects. One of the most haunting elements of the series is the evocative, ominous score by the band Mogwai.

A truly transnational story and production, the series follows three globe-spanning groups. There a mafia don in Italy who has gone into hiding and wants to earn back the trust of his associates by purchasing a large shipment of cocaine from a Mexican drug cartel. In Mexico, the cartel has a mole in an anti-cartel Mexican army who just happens to be squad sergeant. The cocaine shipment is brokered by a News Orleans businessman, played by Byrne, who rationalizes working in the drug trade so his business can “keep the world economy afloat” and provide for his two adult children, played by Riseborough and DeHaan. Like the disabled sons of other TV anti-heroes on The Shield and Breaking Bad, DeHaan’s character has the aforementioned Huntington’s Disease in order to bolster viewer sympathy for this family of American criminals.

Is the show worth watching? I think so, if you’re in the mood for a serious, gritty, unpleasant epic. Like its unexplained, evocative title, Zero Zero Zero shares common ground with the late Roberto Bolano’s ominous transnational epic novel 2666. Both works include globe-spanning and interlocking stories, savage violence, and a quiet, cynical worldview. Byrne and Riseborough are serious and understated as always. Like Mr. Robot, the series is interested in what it means for two adults to be grown siblings, and Riseborough and DeHaan have some touching scenes together. There’s no shortage of shows about the cartel war these days, this brutal series is one of the stronger ones.

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