The story of Griselda Blanco has already been covered well by the outstanding Billy Corben-directed documentaries Cocaine Cowboys and Cocaine Cowboys 2. Both films were informative, wildly entertaining, and ruthlessly efficient in covering the Miami coke trade of the late 70s to mid-80s. While Blanco wasn’t the only drug lord featured in the film, she was definitely one of the most prominent.
So, the question might be, “is Netflix’s Griselda absolutely necessary?” I’m of somewhat mixed opinion on the subject, as Griselda isn’t superior to the two Cocaine Cowboys docs. In fact, it often plays like a B+ version of Netflix’s other prominent series covering the Colombia to United States drug trade years, Narcos. And hey, B+ Narcos to my mind is pretty damn good, I’m just not sure the telling of Griselda through dramatization is essential.
However, there is one particular aspect of Griselda that makes the six-episode limited series absolutely worth viewing: the stunning performance of Sofia Vergara. Rendered all but unrecognizable under heavy makeup, prosthetics, and capped teeth (which do make her look a bit like the real Griselda, although Vergara is still far more glamorous), Vergara breaks new personal artistic ground even if the show doesn’t.
The fact that Vergara is physically unrecognizable could be a distraction to some. I hate to admit, when I first saw her face with all that Hollywood magic on top, I practically flinched. But the makeup is really well done. It’s not like her face loses expression because of it. In fact, I think because Vergara has been so known for her whopping 250 episode run as Gloria on Modern Family, that maybe the makeup was just what she needed to not only disappear into the role, but for us to allow our preconceived notions of her to disappear.
As an audience, we are so used to seeing her as the vivacious, effervescent Latina that it’s hard to imagine her as someone so far from Gloria. Even in her voluminous number of commercials (for Pepsi in particular), Vergara was basically spinning off her Modern Family character. So much so, that she wasn’t just typecasting herself, she was becoming almost a caricature. I’m not saying that’s fair (it isn’t), but Gloria was both her defining role, and the box that she was trapped in. The funny thing is I don’t think it was that important that she look all that much like the real Griselda, but I do think it was important for her not to look like Sofia Vergara.
Of course, the physical manifestation of Sofia into Griselda Blanco wouldn’t matter if Vergara wasn’t also so convincingly channeling the character she was playing. The makeup may provide an entry point to buying Vergara as the infamous Colombian “Godmother,” but what makes you stick around for all six episodes is the complete commitment of Vergara. You neither see nor feel Vergara in the slightest while watching Griselda.
And to be clear, there are some fine supporting performances by Alberto Guerra as Dario, Griselda’s long-suffering husband, Juliana Aiden Martinez as June, the relentless detective who tracks Griselda’s every move, and Vanessa Ferlito, who plays Griselda’s best friend and reluctant partner. There’s also some sharp commentary about how both Griselda and June suffered from rampant sexism and underestimation from men on opposite sides of the law. But in the end, whatever other quality work went into the series through cast, theme, and production, Griselda is the Sofia Vergara show, and it’s one hell of a show.
Her arc from drug dealer’s moll to queenpin is completely believable. You can see the creep from “I’m just going to do this for a little while” to “I want to rule the world” start out in increments and then take great leaps and bounds. At six episodes, Griselda might have benefitted from another couple of hours to show the progression of its lead character at a more even pace, but the show’s leading lady covers up any sins in story development.
At the beginning of the first episode, you see a quote by perhaps the most infamous drug lord ever, Pablo Escobar, that states, “The only man I ever feared was a woman: Griselda Blanco.” If you were to imagine an actor who inspired that sort of palpable fear, I suspect you’d have a very long list before you got to Sofia Vergara’s name. Hell, you’d probably use up all the pulp in a South American rainforest before you even considered her.
I suppose that’s the beauty of great acting, and, just as importantly, the willingness to be open to surprise. I was beyond skeptical that Vergara could pull off the part of Griselda Blanco, but it didn’t take long to make me a believer. Maybe it was the scene where she takes a baseball bat to a man’s legs for stiffing her on a deal. Or, in more subtle moments, when you can see Griselda lying to her friends, family, and, most significantly, to herself, when she claims that she’s going to stay in the game just a bit longer.
For Griselda Blanco, there was no end game. There was only more, whether she told herself another story or not. But there does appear to be an end game here for Vergara. I’m not saying that Vergara took on the lead in Griselda to bury the notion that she couldn’t do anything other than play a version of Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, but if that’s what she had in mind, the notion of her as a one-trick pony is now a full six feet underground.
Despite the actor’s strike limiting the amount of shows that went into production, and will be eligible for next year’s Emmys, the category of lead actress in a limited series-drama is already stacked with Jodie Foster in True Detective, Juno Temple in Fargo, Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry, and Kate Winslet in the still to be seen The Regime. All four would appear to be locks for four of those slots.
I’m not much of an awards season Nostradamus, but I do know that Vergara is a popular figure with the television academy—having been nominated four times for Modern Family. I also know that voters love it when an actor turns in the performance of their life, confounding previously held notions about their ability.
If that’s the case, then don’t bet against Vergara for that fifth slot when the Emmy roll gets called up yonder on July 17. In Griselda, she just gave the performance of her life. Consider me confounded.