Bloodline, Netflix’s noir family drama, is all wet. Not in the idiomatic sense—it’s quite engrossing and addictive—but in Bloodline, which unearths the gothic secrets of an esteemed Florida family, there is literally water, water everywhere. The upstanding Rayburns are the proprietors of a picturesque, Florida Keys inn overlooking the ocean, where on mild days, there’s a damp breeze and a postcard panorama in every direction. Unfortunately, these are not mild days for the Rayburns. Monsoon season intensifies just as eldest brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) makes his dreaded return to the family fold, as if a cumulonimbus is walking him on a long leash. For the Rayburns, the torrents portend anguish and despair. But for Netflix subscribers, a massive rainstorm would be a blessing, a cosmic permission slip to hunker down for a weekend and do nothing but watch Bloodline.
Kyle Chandler stars as John Rayburn, the family’s ballast and designated peacemaker. He takes those roles seriously, even though they leave him saddled with thankless tasks like going to the bus station to retrieve Danny, who has returned to celebrate their parents’ 45th anniversary. The brothers exist at opposite poles. John is a family man and an unassuming but confident sheriff, the type of guy who takes great pride in his invariably moderate speaking volume. Danny is a rumpled gadabout with a criminal streak, and when he’s not passing through the Keys to shake his folks down for money, he gets by with manipulation and studied charm.
Danny initially pretends his homecoming is free of ulterior motives, but it isn’t long before he reveals his agenda to John. He wants to move home for good and join the family business, but he needs John to make the case to their hesitant parents, Robert (Sam Shepard) and Sally (Sissy Spacek). Robert isn’t convinced Danny is ready to straighten up and put down roots, so he defers the decision to John and his other siblings, Meg (Linda Cardellini) and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz). The Rayburns’ turmoil over whether to welcome Danny back occupies the bulk of Bloodline’s pilot, underscoring the depth and severity of the wounds Danny has inflicted. It’s also a reflection of Danny’s general shadiness. He isn’t just a ne’er-do-well, he’s a ne’er-do-right, ever in search of novel ways to disappoint his loved ones.
Bloodline has the trappings of a novelistic family saga, but it isn’t the type of show that compensates for its sedate pace by being especially observant. The show’s creators, Todd Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler, also created Damages, the legal thriller with a twisty, non-linear structure that could be as exhilarating as it was irritating. The creators have discouraged comparing Bloodline with Damages, but that’s a tall request. “We’re not bad people,” says John in a weary voice-over, “but we did a bad thing.” By the end of the pilot, which is beautifully directed by Johan Renck, the audience sees what bad thing the Rayburns did through a series of teasing flashbacks. (Hint: There are corpses involved.) All that’s missing is the motive, which Bloodline will reveal as it unfurls its tandem narrative with each episode building to a tantalizing cliffhanger. Bloodline’s structure makes comparisons to Damages impossible to resist. The differences lie in Bloodline’s swampy milieu and more literal familial themes, a combination that evokes John Updike trying his hand at pulp fiction during a beach vacation.
Kessler, Zelman, and Kessler may be repeating themselves, but their partnership with Netflix makes doing so justified. Only when Damages landed on Netflix did the show meet its full potential. The qualities that made Damages an awful fit for traditional cable made it an ideal match for Netflix’s binge-watch culture. In rapid succession, its rug-pulls and cliffhangers feel deft rather than frustrating, and its fractured narrative feels elegant instead of contrived. Because of Bloodline’s relatively smaller scale, it doesn’t rise to Damages’ level of narrative origami, but its high-pitched reveals are equally irresistible. If ever the audience needs an excuse to forego household chores in favor of being sucked into an auto-play vortex, Bloodline offers plenty of them.
Bloodline’s casting manages to best Damages, which never lost its ability to draw heavyweight talent despite its flyweight viewership. It’s no exaggeration to call Bloodline’s ensemble one of the most impressive in recent television history. The cast, which includes Chloe Sevigny in a minor role, is the type of thespian assembly rarely seen outside of the film world. All of the actors turn in stellar work, and the performances are so natural, the characters don’t feel like they’re being manipulated within an ornate plot structure, even when they are. Chandler hits subtly different notes than he did playing his best-known role in Friday Night Lights. John shares Eric Taylor’s authority and rectitude, but Chandler conveys those qualities in a manner befitting the Rayburns’ Margaritaville environment. John is demanding, but he never sends a stick to do a carrot’s job.
Mendelsohn fits so snugly in the role of Danny, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing him. Danny is so lackadaisical he could easily come across as a troubled beach bum, but even before Danny’s psychological manipulation becomes fully transparent, Mendelsohn imbues him with menace. Shepard and Spacek justify the esteem afforded them, and Cardellini is quietly heartbreaking as Meg, the Rayburns’ only daughter and the character most at risk of a psychological breakdown. Butz is the weak spot, which has less to do with his performance than with Kevin’s lack of dimensionality. Kevin’s sole defining quality is his hair-trigger rage, which doesn’t give Butz much room to play around in, at least early on.
Then again, with Bloodline, there’s no telling what’s in store for Kevin. By juxtaposing foundational scenes from the past and fleeting fragments of the future, the show reassures the audience of how much groundwork the writers have laid. Bloodline occasionally comes across as a potboiler, but it always feels like someone’s got eyes on the stovetop. The storytelling approach inspires the audience’s trust and earns its patience, which feels comforting even though patience is optional with Netflix’s full-season premieres. The main concern with Bloodline echoes the issue with Damages. As effective as the fractured narrative is in a debut season, it can become constricting in subsequent seasons. That’s of acute concern for Bloodline given the stakes involved in the “bad thing” in question, which are so high they seem impossible to match, much less surpass. But to focus on season two is to dilute the beauty of the Netflix model. Mainlining is for today. Worrying about the future is for tomorrow.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run daily from March 20 through April 1.