Netflix’s new original series Bloodline centers around an affluent family in the Florida Keys, well regarded in the community for the inn and charter tour business run by Robert (Sam Shepard) and Sally Rayburn (Sissy Spacek). Their business, and indeed world, is turned upside down with the arrival of family black sheep Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), which sends his hometown siblings John (Kyle Chandler), Meg (Linda Cardellini), and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) scrambling to figure out what to do with Danny. It’s the first heavy-hitting Netflix original that seeks to fill the juicy drama void between seasons of House of Cards (Read more about Netflix and tech news at BGR).
But House of Cards is lush in its characterizations, plumbing the diseased actions of complex characters as well as being a fun, hyperbolically cinematic power fantasy. Bloodline plays more like a prime-time soap that would be at home on CBS airing after an NCIS spin-off. Creators Glenn Kessler, Todd Kessler, and Daniel Zelman are the trio behind FX’s Damages and Bloodline finds them building a show out of the same narrative devices that felt trendy and tired when Damages debuted. Bloodline follows the former series’ puzzle piece structure very tightly, but instead of a bloody Statue of Liberty figurine we get a boat on fire and an increasingly convoluted series of flash forwards involving the Rayburn siblings that telegraphs right off the bat what would have been a big surprise late in the season. Through this ubiquitous narration and mess of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the show cuts the dramatic legs out from under what could have been a leisurely rolled-out character drama for the sake of teasing puzzle pieces–puzzle pieces that it doesn’t trust the audience to come back without.
While Bloodline does a lot of teasing, it doesn’t fill the gap between murder and mystery particularly well. In order to hold back the show’s central mysteries until it is ready to release them, the Rayburn family talk to each other in unnaturally cryptic ways. “Don’t you remember what happened that day?” This goes on for a whopping nine episodes of the precious 13 episode order before the story starts to pay off. Before that point it is single-minded in its focus and limited in scope. Instead of feeling out the Florida Keys as a setting, establishing the town, its residents, and the independent lives of the family members, each Rayburn family member is defined entirely by their relationship to Danny. Just about every conversation revolves around Danny. The show gets in and out of scenes with a repetitive series of phrases that become increasingly, unintentionally, hilarious–“What are we going to do with Danny?”, “Is Danny going to stay around this time?”, “Should we cut Danny into the will?”, “We need to talk. It’s about Danny”–before the show reveals what makes Danny the family black sheep in the first place. Late in the season when Spacek comments that “It’s always about Danny”, it’s the understatement of the entire drama.
Revolving just on the periphery of the Danny drama is John’s storyline. The town Sheriff, John is faced with a murder mystery when two burned female bodies float to the surface of the bay. This predictably dovetails into the family drama, though it is hardly an easy transition. Kyle Chandler remains the bright light in the series from start to finish, nicely conveying the shifting alliances of being a man of the law, a husband, and a father, his suspicions of Danny, and his genuine attempts to make peace with his brother when his siblings will not. Also good is Freaks and Geeks star Linda Cardellini, finally given a dramatic role she can sink her teeth into as the daughter who went to law school, conflicted by her duties to her father’s estate planning and an illicit affair with Rescue Me’s Steven Pasquale.
Actually, there is a shocking amount of recognizable supporting talent burning away in the background of this show. Chloë Sevigny guest stars as Danny’s girlfriend Chelsea. Katie Finneran (Wonderfalls) appears in the thankless role of Kevin’s wife Belle. Glenn Morshower (best known as fan favorite Aaron on 24) appears as a villain. Mia Kirshner lends her distinct voice to a shadowy figure from Danny’s past in a clever bit of business that pushes the show into surreal territory.
As the series’ central focus, Mendelsohn does what he can and struggles valiantly to slog through the wild swings of the material. Is Danny a drug dealing business man? A bum? A hurt son who just wants to be involved? A brilliant manipulator? A psychopath? A pedophile? He begs the family to trust him, blackmails them a few minutes later, and in the next episode, goes full blown crazy. Is his character changing over the course of the series or being revealed for what he always has been? And as much as the Rayburn’s complain about Danny’s behavior, they contribute their share as well with Robert offering his son a shocking ultimatum, John lying about their father’s motives and Danny being brought to deal with a secret from the past that was covered up by his siblings.
Chandler and Cardellini carry the human element of a series, more concerned with over-complicating a straight-forward story by contorting it into a mystery. Peeling away the time shifts, Bloodline’s story is flat. A family tragedy that happened decades ago echoes in the ears of each member of the Rayburn family, motivates their every move, monopolizes their every conversation, and renders them paralyzed to personal growth and common sense. They aren’t particularly likable but aren’t fun to root against either. It’s all a bit one-note; an artificial, repetitive, twist machine doing its best impression of a family drama.