Roberto Saviano has made a career from bravely exposing criminal enterprises at the risk of his own life. After writing the enthralling work Gomorrah (from which the acclaimed TV series is based), he had to go into hiding, fearing retribution from the Camorra whose operations he had exposed. For years he has lived under the guard of the Carabinieri – the national gendarme of Italy – moving from hotel room to hotel room, staying out of sight. It’s a huge price to pay for the Italian journalist, and yet he is unrelenting, continuing to publish excoriating pieces of investigative journalism which tackle often under-reported elements of organised crime.
With ZeroZeroZero – the title is a play on the Italian grading system for flour, which is rated from 2-0 based on its purity; 000 here means pure, uncut cocaine – he expanded his attention to the global cocaine distribution market, explaining that cocaine is not just part of the global market. It is the global market.
Now, thanks to a multi-national team-up of production companies from Amazon to Canal+ to Sky, ZeroZeroZero has been adapted into a fictional mini-series highlighting the major aspects of the global business outlined in Saviano’s book. It is at once enthralling, engaging, and at times utterly jaw-dropping – those who are familiar with Gomorrah will know what to expect here, but series directors Stefano Sollima, Janus Metz, and Pablo Trapero manage to throw in some unexpected twists along the way, keeping the series fresh and addictive.
The Family Business
ZeroZeroZero is arguably three shows in one: a mafia drama/saga in the vein of Gomorrah, a fast-paced and violent cartel thriller featuring Mexican narcos, and an American road trip drama dissecting the intricacies of family structures. The series switches between the three frequently and without pattern – whole episodes may be devoted to one particular strand, while other episodes flit between the three – and occasionally intertwine, which often leads to more bloodshed. It is extremely well done and handled with such deftness that only very occasionally does the plot stall and we lose momentum.
The first strand begins in Monterrey, Mexico where the Leyra cartel is producing tons of cocaine for shipment, bribing local armed forces into assisting them. These armed forces are led by Manuel (a cold-blooded and excellent performance by Harold Torres) who has ambitions of leading a cartel of his own, utilising his special forces training to amass an army of disenfranchised youths to do so.
Over in Calabria, Italy, the ‘Ndrangheta crime family led by Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida) are waiting to receive this shipment. Don Minu is an ageing godfather-esque figure, forced into hiding by the Italian law, and planning to consolidate his power with the shipment, whose contents he plans to distribute to his soldiers for sale. This plan is solid enough, except for his rebellious grandson Stefano (Giuseppe de Domenico). Stefano knows that if he can sabotage this shipment, his grandfather’s reign as head of the ‘Ndrangheta will come to an end, and he himself can assume power.
Caught in the middle of this is the American shipping company led by Edward Lynwood (Gabriel Byrne) and his two children Emma (Andrea Riseborough) and Chris (Dane DeHaan). Edward’s shipping company hides cocaine from the Mexicans in tins of Jalapenos, providing the perfect cover for intercontinental transport over to Italy. Edward must navigate the murky terrains of both hostile takeovers in Mexico and Italy while teaching his daughter the family business and keeping his Huntington’s-afflicted son far away from it.
Monterrey to Calabria
It’s at its best when focusing on the characters involved with this international series of affairs. Unfortunately, it’s not something that’s always done well – Manuel is a brutal, cold-hearted warrior who’s ambitions are never really explained, while his devotion to an evangelical revivalist church seems jarringly at odds with the rest of his persona. Over in Italy Stefano isn’t given much reason to dislike his grandfather’s rule beyond the fact that it inherently disrupts his own ascension to power.
Generally speaking, the main motivation in most of the arcs is simply a brutal lust for power which knows no bounds. It is the American strand that provides the strongest depth in character, predominantly between Emma and Chris. Thanks to Stefano’s meddling, the siblings must escort the shipment through dangerous routes from Senegal to Morocco, learning to trust one another along the way.
Both DeHaan and Riseborough get good stuff to work with here: Chris’ disease is slowly eating away at him, rendering him helpless and frustrated as he tries to prove his worth to his family, while Emma – the brains of the operation – finds herself in the eye of the storm, attempting to assume control of the business as the lone woman in an industry dominated by men. Their journey together provides the emotional heft of the series as they traverse through stunning backdrops in the likes of Mexico, Morocco, and Southern Italy, accompanied by the sombre austerity of the soundtrack, written by seminal Scottish indie band Mogwai.
The global aspect of ZeroZeroZero is really what sets it apart from its contemporaries such as Gomorrah and Narcos. While the latter did focus on an enterprise which jumped from Columbia to America, it didn’t have the reach that we see here nor the insight into the machinations of global production and transport. This is a thrilling aspect that many other shows miss, allowing the audience to jump across the globe as they witness myriad different power struggles on three different continents.
Rise To Power
This is a show mostly interested in the inherent power struggles in each faction involved with cocaine production. There is an implication that all of this is par for the course; that no matter who is felled in the pursuit of power, there will always be someone else to step into the vacuum. Everyone seems prepared to kill at the drop of a hat, and you spend much of your time waiting for the eventual switch of allegiance which will seal the fate of several main characters. Perhaps the only people worth the sympathy of the audience are the Lynwoods, whose ties to each other as family exempt them from the habitual bloodshed of the others.
Stefano, although shown to be a family man who loves his wife and son, doesn’t seem to spend much time repenting his murderous intentions towards his grandfather. Meanwhile, Manuel blazes through Monterrey like a virus, striking down anyone who may consider siding against him. One scene shows his merciless and brutal killing of several innocent passengers on a bus, simply to prove that he’s willing to do anything he has to. The only glimpse of humanity we’re shown in him is when he falls for the heavily pregnant wife of a soldier he brutally killed; Manuel is at least human enough to recognise the depravity in this as he pursues a relationship with her.
ZeroZeroZero Season 1: Conclusion
ZeroZeroZero is a no-brainer for anyone who enjoys crime drama series. It is expertly and beautifully shot, featuring a large ensemble cast of talented actors, and it’s unlikely you’ll see a more beautiful series of vistas in any other TV show this year. It does contain elements of cliche, and at times is frustratingly undercooked in some of its character development, but the sheer scope of this is enough to win over anyone with even a passing interest in the workings of organised crime and global commerce.
Have you read the original book? What did you think the adaptation did right or wrong? Let us know in the comments!
ZeroZeroZero was released on Amazon Prime USA on 6 March.
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