'Narcos' reloads but delivers same high

Pedro Pascal in 'Narcos'

(CNN)"Narcos" wrapped up its Pablo Escobar storyline in two terrific seasons, raising the question of what the show could possibly do for an encore without Wagner Moura in that role. The answer, it turns out, was to splendidly hit the reset button, with Pedro Pascal moving to the center and a quartet of Cali Cartel kingpins filling the void.

Boyd Holbrook's character has moved on, leaving Pascal, as DEA agent Javier Pena, to take over the narration chores. Yet with the horde of characters to track, even he plays a relatively modest role, as the show traces a criminal enterprise that Pena labels "the pinnacle of trafficking evolution; apex drug dealers."
Pena is actually somewhat uncomfortable due to his sort-of celebrity in helping to stop Escobar, but the Cali threat in the 1990s raises a new set of issues. For starters, the cartel's leader Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela (Damian Alcazar) is determined to go legit, in a move that raises the specter of "The Godfather" sequels.
    As in those movies, transferring Cali's clout into respectable businesses isn't as simple as it sounds. And while the show starts somewhat slowly, the violence comes later in explosive and grisly fashion, as the Cali heavyweights prove every bit as ruthless and sadistic, albeit in somewhat different fashion.
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    The array of characters is particularly strong, with Alberto Ammann as an openly gay leader of the cartel, who -- despite the time and place -- is completely accepted for who he is; Matias Varela as a family man trying to navigate the fine line between the DEA and his bosses; and Andrea Londo as the wife of a drug lord forced to seek the patronage to Gilberto's brother Miguel (Francisco Denis) to survive.
    As for the feds, both in the U.S. and Colombia, their efforts are complicated by the rampant corruption that drug money incubates -- less mercurial than Escobar, Gilberto's first impulse is to throw money at problems -- leaving even the most principled officials hampered by the fact that they're not sure who they can trust. Achieving victories in this war, moreover, almost invariably comes at a price.
    Throughout, "Narcos" remains tense -- almost unbearably so at times -- bleak and disturbing, the prevailing theme and main connective tissue being that authorities are ultimately playing an elaborate game of Whac-a-Mole, meaning that decapitating one drug honcho will, in this case, simply sprout four more.
    When asked about the show's future post-Escobar, executive producer Eric Newman said, "We plan on stopping when cocaine stops."
    If that seemed like bravado at the time, the third season of "Narcos" has demonstrated that it's capable of reloading, recasting and, dramatically speaking, delivering the same high.
    "Narcos" premieres Sept. 1 on Netflix.