Amazon Prime’s ZeroZeroZero is the impossibly exciting new drugs series from Roberto Saviano — the author who gave us perhaps my all-time favorite TV drama Gomorrah. What I love about Gomorrah is its utter ruthlessness and total artistic integrity. It’s set amid the warring drugs factions of the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) and never at any point do you feel that authenticity is being sacrificed for reasons of marketability, politically-correct sensitivities or narrative arc. Not without reason has it been called the series ‘where characters die before they become characters’.
Saviano himself has paid a terrible price for his honesty. He grew up among those Neapolitan gangs — ‘I saw my first corpse in my first year of secondary school’ — and has described their world with such fidelity that he is now a marked man. ‘This life is shit — it’s hard to describe how bad it is,’ he has said of his miserable peripatetic existence, now mainly in the US, with bodyguards, continually shifting travel arrangements and windowless rooms.
Perhaps this is why mirth is largely absent from his creations. His latest drama is named after the purest level of cocaine, before it gets endlessly cut for the retail market. It tells the story of a single cocaine shipment from South America to Europe from three different perspectives: a Mexican drugs cartel, an ’Ndrangheta clan in Calabria, and the American Lynwood family from New Orleans whose shipping company has for three decades been shifting the stuff across the Atlantic.
That might sound boringly schematic. Certainly, it lacks the fluidity of Gomorrah, and threatens to turn into one of those non-fiction bestsellers you buy in mild desperation at the airport bookshop, called something like Inside the Cocaine Trade. But there are compensations, one of which is that you get three tense, labyrinthine and gloriously violent thriller plot lines for the price of one.
The most conventional is the English-speaking one, with Gabriel Byrne as the shipping patriarch and Andrea Riseborough and Dane DeHaan as the children, Emma and Chris, being groomed for succession. Chris bears the added burden of inherited Huntingdon’s disease, a cruel condition where you can live perfectly normally for years, but then get randomly struck down with crippling physical and mental degeneration.
Probably the weirdest, most unpredictable and unsettling is the Mexican story. We follow an elite army anti-drugs unit which, spoiler alert, turns out to be at least as bad as the problem it’s pretending to solve. It all feels like a bad trip or hideous nightmare, where nothing makes sense: a sweet little schoolgirl caught in the crossfire bleeds to death as we watch, helpless; three corpses are hung with chains from a bridge, signs attached to their bodies accusing them of links to a cartel, when in truth they are just random victims of escalating violence and corrupt, complex politics; worshippers sway in ecstasy, arms raised, croaking along tunelessly to an evangelical hymn at a church hall in an impoverished barrio.
But the territory, obviously, where Saviano feels most comfortable is back in Italy, where elderly boss Don Minu (who has been living for years in an underground hideout)is drawn into a vicious turf war by his nasty, vengeful grandson Stefano. Whenever you think you know where the plot is going, Saviano pulls the rug from beneath you, which is one of the many satisfying things about the series as a whole: you’re continually being walloped by epic reveals.
There are scenes with dope-smoking Chris (DeHaan is absolutely first-rate as this simultaneously messed-up yet fantastically competent character) on the container ship, for example, where you go: ‘Wait? What?? How on earth?’ At which point, the narrative jumps back to one of the other plot lines, hours or even days earlier, till you gradually rejoin the present and all, more or less, is explained.
This device — the jumpy, confusing, back-and-forth timeline — is currently so fashionable in TV serial dramas that it has become a bit of a cliché . Probably the best use of this trick (which was, I think, first popularized by Quentin Tarantino) is in Episode Five of To the Lake (Netflix) — the most perfect bit of TV I’ve seen in the past 12 months. And while it takes some getting used to (it’s several episodes in before you’re even halfway to understanding what’s going on), I think it works with ZeroZeroZero too because it makes such an effective mechanism for delivering surprise.
Of late, I’ve been quite desperate for genuinely watchable TV. I suspect we’re entering a drought period and it’s going to get a lot worse. But ZeroZeroZero delivers in spades, and I don’t want it to end because almost anything that follows is bound to disappoint.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2021 US edition.