Obliterated is an insanely entertaining combo of OTT action and gonzo mayhem
Critic Luke Buckmaster has never experienced a hangover as devastating as the one in Obliterated: the kind of morning-after meltdown that might lead to an actual nuclear disaster. Here’s his thoughts on Netflix’s explosive new action-comedy.
The best thing about Netflix’s raucously entertaining new action-comedy, from the creators of Cobra Kai, is that it’s a party even when there’s no party. The same is true to some extent of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which, irrespective of their flaws, do bring a festive atmosphere to superhero shenanigans. But whereas those MCU flicks are the equivalent of a 13-year-old’s birthday shindig with chips and red cordial, Obliterated is a wild orgy full of the stuff your parents tried to keep you away from—booze, torrid sex acts, a biblical flood of mind-altering substances. Any glass table you see is bound to have somebody fall through it. Any stretch of clean carpet will be soiled one way or another.
Everybody is getting their Hunter S. Thompson game on—even and especially the spec ops team tasked with the job of saving the world. Ergo, a combination I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen before: gonzo mayhem paired with a story about preventing terrorists from detonating nuclear bombs. The Hangover meets…Mission: Impossible? And where else could this be set, other than Las Vegas? By now you might’ve worked out that the title has an amusing double meaning.
The first episode begins with a blast of aerial drone images capturing Sin City, which get a little closer to the ground, but not much—taking us to the rooftop of a hotel and into a 21st birthday pool party full of bikinis and liquored-up revellers. Then the camera does something weird: it dives into the water, gliding past an array of gyrating butts, moving through the drain and emerging onto the floor below. Two sweaty men seem up to no good, installing a device and activating a timer.
And then! A computer whiz in a van—NSA tech expert Maya Lerner (Kimi Rutledge)—suggests impending danger to one of the hotel staff, who is actually a main character: CIA agent Ava Winters (Shelley Hennig). And then! A marine sniper—another member of Winters’ team, Angela Gomez (Paola Lázaro)—is introduced on a nearby balcony, wondering if she should shoot. And then! We’re informed of a nuclear device that could go kablammo.
Cripes…it all happens so quick. Directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg conjure a pretty bloody good example of a story that begins in media res, destabilising the viewer and pumping out a series of mini revelations with sheer force and propulsion, not squandering one iota of runtime. Very soon we discover the device those dripping dudes beneath the pool were fidgeting with just provides a special effect for the party. A fake-out! But then the creepy Russian baddie Koslov (Costa Ronin) says to Winters: “something tells me that tonight the city’s going to be dead.”
The subsequent series, of which I’ve seen five episodes so far, audaciously configures narrative pathways that lead back to a party or party-ish behaviour, airdropping us into locations that are Vegas through and through: bars, night clubs, strip clubs, sex rooms, poker tables etcetera. If you sat stony-faced through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this is not the show for you.
After that initial, deliciously over-the-top opener, the team—which also includes head hunk Chad McKnight (Nick Zano)—go to a hotel room to celebrate a job well done and get completely trollied. The team’s explosives expert, Haggerty (C. Thomas Howell), is now doing ketamine and adding high strength LSD to the guacamole. The show stays at this party for a long time, gurgling the bong water, sniffing the marching powder. Then a call from the top brass comes: there’s another nuke; the first was a decoy.
I can’t recall the details of every, or to be fair, virtually any hangover I’ve experienced in my life, but I’m pretty sure none of them required me to prevent a nuclear disaster (unless that disaster was a metaphor for liver and sinus damage). This is the show’s very funny premise, delivered with an impish wink by a likeable and sometimes intentionally meat-headed cast, who everybody knows don’t look or sound anything like special ops people.
Even if the humour is a little lewd, and the plotlines a little reheated, and the puff comes out of it every once in a while, and it sticks its head in the toilet bowl too much, and the sight gags go too far (like in the PTSD-inducing episode five), Obliterated always picks itself up, dusts itself off, mainlines another hit, refuses to take the audience’s attention for granted. Some moments reminded me of a scolding Marge once gave Homer in The Simpsons: “you didn’t just cross the line, you threw up all over it.”