Hi, I’m Paste’s Unofficial Official War on Narcotraficantes correspondent, and I’d like to take a minute to talk about the enduring influence of Pablo Escobar, the element of suspense, and how reality TV is Making Us Stupider and Stupider.
My first name is Amy, which should tell you that either my mom was a fan of Little Women (the novel, not the reality show!) or that I was born during the Carter administration. (Bonus points if you guessed “both.”) I was a child of the Brat Pack years, the cold end of the Cold War, Reaganomics, Tear Down That Wall and Just Say No. According to TV and film when I was growing up, Colombia was about the scariest place in the world (my post-9/11 daughters find this incomprehensible). And there was one guy who was almost singlehandedly responsible for that status: Pablo Escobar, el capo de los capos, drug kingpin extraordinaire. Escobar was a legend, a flamboyant, defiant sociopath who murdered about one bajillion people, tortured at least that many, and at the height of his reign was making some $60 million in cash per day. And, like, because it was from the sale of holy-crap-massive amounts of coke, speed, pot and junk, banks didn’t really want it. So Mr. Escobar, like a very enterprising squirrel with an unusually large acorn empire, buried it.
In barrels and safes and boxes. In walls and in the ground. In concrete and masonry and mud. And a quarter century after his death, it’s estimated that only a small fraction of it was found.
So, Discovery Channel’s got this program where they send two ex-CIA case officers and a boatload of drones and metal detectors into Medellin to find it. It’s in cooperation with the Colombian government, which will relieve the intrepid intelligence workers of whatever they find, minus a 5% finder’s fee they are going to donate to “the victims.”
Cool premise. Right?
I’m not sure if you already know this, but being a spy isn’t always exciting. Looking for caches of, well, cash, in an area twice the size of Texas is also not always exciting. Television assumes that, as Americans, you will inherently be excited by the concept of money, especially ill-gotten money buried in the ground waiting to be dug up by anyone with the moxie and knowhow to find it. Television also assumes you have a shorter attention span than that squirrel I mentioned, so every commercial break in this show is bracketed with recaps of what happened before that ad for Domino’s Pizza.
Yep, these showrunners have taken a real-life secret spy mission into the stronghold of the most notorious drug lord of all time and produced it like an episode of The Biggest Loser.
I have seen three episodes, which is more than enough for me to conclude that perhaps spooling this into a serialized season-long endeavor wasn’t the best call: It might have made a compelling one- or two-episode special. I’m trying to come up with a rational explanation for the fact that they choose to structure it out the way they have, slotting it into what has to be the most tedious of all reality TV formats, in which the tape rewinds monotonously every single time there’s a commercial break and wherein every banal quip to the camera is uttered a minimum of 8 times. Because, given the nature of the expedition, that leaves us with two ex-CIA guys who aren’t very charismatic or articulate about what they can say on TV, have a boatload of stuff they cannot say, and whose mission inherently sets them up for a lot of false starts, bum leads, and disappointing outcomes. It’s the reality of looking for needles in haystacks, but it makes for very frustrating television.
Basically, if you are someone who loves movies about drug lords and you’ve been happily bingeing on Narcos and El Chapo, love CIA capers, and/or are fascinated by the specific case of Pablo Escobar and the fact that he probably successfully hid an amount of money that is more than the GDP of a significant percentage of sovereign nations? Give this show a try. It will test your patience, but if you don’t mind being patronized and have a high tolerance for agonizing pacing, you might enjoy it.
For my money, as it were, Finding Escobar’s Millions takes a pretty fascinating concept and makes it as dull as possible, littering the scene with unanswered questions and unexplored characters as they go. The two guys who take us on this journey are ironically superficial, considering it’s an excavation. The remote sensing expert they bring in is casually noted to have found “Dead Sea Scrolls” without any context, and a university geologist shows up with no back story at all. We meet Escobar’s sister, sister-in-law, and two or three important still-living captains in the first three episodes, not to mention the DEA agents whose work inspired Narcos—and we learn next to nothing about them. There’s a truly wild interaction with a local priest in the third episode that really should have been explored more, and hey, maybe it will be, five episodes from now when we’re still slogging through the same four hours of real time. There’s an excavator and a drone and Satan’s own metal detector in use in an open field in Escobar’s barrio in Medellin, and it’s set up—very possibly realistically—as a situation in which eyes and ears still owned by powerful people associated with the cartel are likely watching their every move, but there is no follow-up, or even a reflection on what that was like.
So it doesn’t feel spontaneous, and it doesn’t feel artful. What’s left? A ton of artificially generated cliffhanger anticipation and a lot of empty holes. Are they going to find something big by the end of the season? No idea! But I’m already finding it hard to care.
Pablo Escobar buried a crap-ton of money; estimates reach into the billions. Most of it was not recovered by the Colombian government after his death. Escobar buried a lot of things, actually. Bodies. Weapons. Motorcycles. Gold bullion and gemstones and secrets. An expedition to find those things is interesting, and the most interesting part probably isn’t the money, but the people. What if Finding Escobar’s Millions actually transcended the formula and tried to unbury the secret histories of people who lived and died for the cartel, people who were part of his extended family, people whose lives were shattered by cartel violence, people who benefitted from it? What if it unearthed the human riches, the secrets of a secretive man who ran an incomprehensibly massive drug trafficking operation under the noses of multiple governments? What if, for that matter, it found ways to get inside the logistics of a spy operation so that we learned something about what that means instead of two guys smugly referencing their “skill sets” like a pair of totally uncharismatic Liam Neesons? Getting into the hardcore nerdery of finding buried treasure? We are smart enough not to be bored by this. We are smart enough to latch on to the human interest value of a man like Juan “El Alacran” Esteban, a man who probably didn’t earn the nickname “the scorpion” for no reason. We are smart enough to want to know what it was like to be Pablo Escobar’s sister, or his “guard” in the country club “prison” the Colombian government let him build for himself to avoid extradition—dude, that’s a thing. Why did the government let him self-incarcerate at La Catedral, knowing full well he could walk out at any time and that he was still running his cocaine empire from inside the compound? I mean, we are smart enough to follow the money. We are certainly smart enough to remember that even though there was a Nissan commercial, there are still two dudes looking for Pablo Escobar’s money and we don’t need to have it all explained again.
I guess there’s no point in begging you guys to stop trying to make us stupid. Is there?
And is there a remote sensing technology for locating and unearthing buried potential?
Finding Escobar’s Millions airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Discovery Channel.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.