The pilot of Netflix’s new family drama Bloodline pulls you deep into the swampy waters of the Rayburn family. There’s a lot of exposition, and even though the beautifully shot pilot teases multiple mysteries, it never reaches the thriller level its heightened voiceovers and narrative structure aspire to. But the groundwork laid here sturdy, especially when it comes to the series’ characters, played by such a stacked cast that the performances alone are nearly enough to make you crave more.
Right off the bat, middle son John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) explains that the arrival of his screw-up older brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) spells doom for the Rayburn family. Danny takes his time revealing the true reason for his return to the Keys: He wants to return home for good and help out with the family’s hotel business. The way John and his other siblings—Meg (Linda Cardellini) and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz)—talk and move around Danny convey the weight of his return and the past pains he has inflicted, although the specifics remain, for now, unknown.
It’s nearly impossible to not think of Bloodline creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman’s previous work on the legal thriller Damages. Though Bloodline trades in the legal formalities in favor of more intimate family drama, the nonlinear trajectory of the pilot contains Damages DNA. Bloodline already shows much more restraint with such narrative trickery. Damages twisted itself into a narrative pretzel, which began as its strength and eventually turned into its downfall. Bloodline jumps forward and backward but not nearly as often as Damages, and even though John and Danny hint at secrets throughout the pilot, the story seems more invested in the present and in the deeply rooted family drama than in reveals and mystery, making it more personal and grounded than Damages.
But that same restraint also works against Bloodline. At times, getting through the pilot feels a little like John slogging through the swamp. Zelman and the Kesslers wrote a pilot ready for the binge-viewing world before binge-viewing was a thing with Damages, but that same urgency isn’t quite there for Bloodline yet. The pilot doesn’t bore, but it doesn’t quite hit hard enough to make you wholly compelled to let autoplay do its thing and take you to the next one.
The pilot feels disjointed as it oscillates between the more compelling family drama and larger thriller elements that feel out of place. John’s job as a sheriff leads him to late-night crime scene where he finds a dead teenaged girl. “It’s going to be a long night,” John sighs, but the episode immediately cuts to the sunny sands of the Rayburn hotel, and the dead girl is quickly forgotten. If their work on Damages is any indication, the Kesslers and Zelman are just taking their time with how this will eventually connect to the show’s larger framework. I’m all for careful storytelling and relaxed pacing, but throwing a random dead girl in your pilot reeks of the unsettling pattern in thriller pilots that Kroll Show’s Dead Girl Town so deftly parodies. There seems to be this misguided notion that establishing your series as a Serious Show means you have to have a pretty corpse show up in your pilot. We never even learn the name of the girl in the swamp, and while it might be tonally connected, the scene is narratively detached from the rest of the pilot.
So while its mystery elements don’t quite hook, Bloodline’s best bait right now is its characters. The pilot establishes the overarching conflict of the story through the relationships between Danny and the rest of the family. The pilot turns on the siblings’ decision process as they weigh whether to let Danny back into their lives again. And the writers take their time parsing out the intricacies of this decision. There’s a two-minute scene of just the siblings fighting with Danny about letting his girlfriend Sheryl sit at the family table at the Rayburn’s annual celebration. That’s a lot of time to spend on a dispute over seating politics, but of course, it’s about more than just who sits where, and it’s really the actors who unearth those deeper truths than the writing. Chandler, Butz, Cardellini, and Mendelsohn elevate the script, revealing the pain Danny has caused and where they all fall on the should-he-stay-or-should-he-go spectrum without talking about it directly.
A lot of the pilot’s quieter, slower scenes are heightened by its actors. A lot of Bloodline’s buzz has centered on the cast, which includes so many heavy-hitters and big names—including Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard as the heads of the Rayburn family—that it sounds more like the lineup for an upcoming film than a Netflix series. Mendelsohn is particularly suited for his character, capturing Danny’s volatility with subtle physical choices. The scene where he tells John’s wife Diana (Jacinda Barrett) about a woman who asked him to hit her during sex unnerves deeply. And Chandler settles comfortably into the role of John, who is in every way opposite of Danny. He’s the family fixer, and Chandler possesses John’s quiet but firm energy with ease. The family ties—both the strong and the severed—of Bloodline are, as the title suggests, the foundation of the show’s perspective. But in order for the series to fully earn the pilot’s literally explosive reveal, the writers need to strike the right balance between building thrills and character work.
- Hello and welcome to daily reviews of Bloodline. People will undoubtedly be watching at different paces, so try to be respectful to other commenters by keeping your comments confined to the particular episode being reviewed. And if you do end up talking about future episodes, just include a spoiler warning.
- I’m one of those people who hates the use of voiceover in almost all instances (major exceptions being Arrested Development and Jane The Virgin). Here, I don’t necessarily hate it, but I also don’t think John has said much that really adds anything. In any case, it’s hard to complain about hearing Kyle Chandler’s voice.
- So yeah, this is one of the best casts on television right now, but as fellow critic and friend David Sims pointed out, there are some glaring accent problems.
- She’s inexplicably not listed on Bloodline’s IMDb page, so maybe she’s only in the pilot, but I’ve been watching television for long enough to feel my blood pressure rise whenever Mia Kirshner shows up. Don’t get me wrong; I think Kirshner is as good an actor as the rest of the cast, but boy oh boy does she play some loathsome and sometimes literally evil characters. In the year 2015, I still suffer from Jenny Schecter flashbacks.