Traditionally, TV shows have used cold opens (the narrative technique of jumping straight into the story ahead of an episode’s opening titles) as an accessible, grabby headline – something to suck in potential viewers. In recent years, these concise pre-credits sequences have sprawled out, becoming less and less concise. ZeroZeroZero takes this practice to an extreme: Though the series is an organised-crime drama about the drug trade, the protracted 20-minute opening of its very first episode pointedly keeps drugs, killing, and two of its three marquee stars offscreen. The series as a whole doesn’t omit these things – especially not killings. But it does continue to operate at its own methodical pace at times when other shows might insist on throwing as many balls as possible into the air.
Rather than starting with a bang, the opening of ZeroZeroZero focuses on introducing Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico) and his crime-boss grandfather Damiano (Adriano Chiaramida), who Stefano wishes to depose. Mafia violence lurks in the background, as carnivorous pigs feast on a corpse. The Italian section eventually reveals itself as just one of three major storylines in this globe-spanning, multi-lingual series that tracks the path of cocaine from sellers in Mexico to its buyers in Italy, with an American shipping company serving as a go-between and cover operation. That shipping company is thrown into disarray when patriarch Edward (Gabriel Byrne) is no longer able to oversee its operations, leaving his adult children Emma (Andrea Riseborough) and Chris (Dane DeHaan) to take over. Meanwhile, back in Mexico, army man Manuel (Harold Torres) leads a band of his fellow soldiers into the secret employment of the Leyra brothers, ruthless cartel kingpins.
It takes a while for these stories to come into focus, and ZeroZeroZero never falls into a predictable cross-cutting rhythm. Individual episodes don’t stay with a single storyline, but they aren’t evenly balanced, either; sometimes one thread will receive a majority of screen time while another gets a brief check-in and a third is temporarily ignored. It’s a bold gambit that presumes equal investment in the show’s careful, often dispassionate assessment of this corrupt and complicated industry.
Like the Italian drama series Gomorrah, ZeroZeroZero is based on a book by Roberto Saviano, and has been adapted for television by the Gomorrah crew Stefano Sollima, Leonardo Fasoli, and Mauricio Katz. The new show unleashes some riveting set pieces, like the second-episode opener following Damiano as he attempts to use an escape hatch to flee the police who have him far outnumbered and outgunned, or Chris’s third-episode attempt to prevent (and then contain) a raging fire on his family’s ship. The richly shadowy cinematography sometimes recalls the work of Roger Deakins (specifically the similarly doomy and drug-centric film Sicario), and specialises in ominous-looking shots that steadily follow various automobiles, whether in car chases or on foreboding late-night drives toward grim fates. This is a great-looking show.
Yet as technically polished as it is, there’s something remote about the entire operation. In the moment, it’s often gripping; cumulatively, it doesn’t always add up to much more than watching its subjects connive and squirm their way through sticky, potentially violent situations. Even when the show burns slowly, it’s only occasionally in service of its actual characters. One of its few attempts to dig into non-drug-trade characterisations shows Chris struggling to contain early signs of Huntington’s disease, which he has inherited from his deceased mother, and has already damaged his hearing. DeHaan does his best poor-man’s-DiCaprio with the role opposite the ever-chameleonic Riseborough, but even when the material gets a little more personal, they must steadfastly adhere to crime-movie types: the responsible first-born and the resentful, somewhat bumbling younger sibling.
Strip away the prestige-TV pacing and the impressive sprawl, and the story so far has a lot of those familiar elements: a crime-adjacent patriarch dies, leaving a grapple for power in his wake; the drug business demonstrates its ruthlessness as upstarts try to keep up with established power brokers; all those late-night car rides where a passenger realises he’s not in control of what happens next. The writers do add some neat structural tricks, like separating Chris and Emma, following one of them, then circling back later to reveal what the other was up to. Unfortunately, even those moments start to feel formulaic after a few episodes’ worth of repetition.
With its stories and characters that are more tangentially related than immediately intersecting, ZeroZeroZero sometimes plays a little like the US series Boardwalk Empire, only without the outsized personalities or mordant humour of that prohibition-era gangster show. The tonal control and filmmaking acumen here is admirable, but the show often resembles its own sleek, menacing shots of moving vehicles: It barrels ahead inexorably, toward more violence and death, revealing little along the way.