Netflix has tried its creative hand yet again with the first season of Bloodline, a star-packed drama about the true cost of family. The site’s answer to True Detective follows the Rayburns, a Florida Keys family who essentially own their small town. Patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and wife Sally (Sissy Spacek) have had an idyllic beachfront inn for over 50 years, which is shared and supported by their children. John (Kyle Chandler, good to see your face again) is the town’s good ole boy deputy; Megan (Linda Cardellini) is a local Jane-of-all-trades lawyer; Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is a beach bum boat repairman; and Danny… Danny, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is the eldest and an expat, and his arrival always spells trouble for the tight-knit clan.
When the town wants to honor Robert with a pier dedication, friends and family gather at the inn for the celebration, but Danny’s shadowy presence stirs up painful memories of the past. Episode 1 makes it quite clear that this is a family full of secrets, and the show has no problem taking its sweet time in revealing them.
Bloodline employs TV tactics that fans of Lost, True Detective, and House of Cards will be very familiar with. Most episodes are interspersed with voiceovers courtesy of John, who speaks in vague tones about his family’s wrongdoings. Each episode relies heavily on flashbacks from different characters’ perspectives, painting their guilt and regrets one shade at a time. The flashbacks’ MO is to be doled out piecemeal over the course of an episode, which loosely centers around the character whose memories we’re privy to. Each complete memory, revealed in an episode’s final minutes, is another piece to solving the Rayburn puzzle.
These tricks put the audience in the uncomfortable position of being at the mercy of characters who know more than we do, and this is a show that lords that fact over us. In an age where binge-watching is the norm – Netflix is no fool and has designed its shows to cater accordingly – narrative structures change, which explains the tantalizingly slow pace here. There is something to be said for making viewers wait even while they’re packing 13 episodes into a weekend.
However, the presumed (but not shared) context determined by voiceovers and flashbacks raises a couple of problems. One, the show is pretty much destined to have a too-cool-for-school vibe, a la the “divine truth of the universe” dorm musings on True Detective. Two, details are bound to get glossed over or hurriedly tossed at us. It’s not made clear until the final episodes that Danny’s love interest, Chelsea (HELL YES Chloë Sevigny), is a nurse, and the show does a poor job of establishing that Megan’s longtime boyfriend, Marco (Enrique Murciano), is also John’s partner. He needs one, because John is a truly terrible detective, putting little effort into his requisite dead girls case and somehow needing to ask another detective about the statute of limitations on giving false testimony. Shows should never spoonfeed, but dragging things out for the sake of continuous viewership is sadistic.
As you could probably guess from the cast, the acting is phenomenal. So much so that it sometimes painfully underlines the scripts’ weaknesses. Bloodline is a drama, so a lot gets sacrificed for the dramatic. During a pivotal scene where Sally tells John about Robert’s childhood, the dialogue feels stilted and overcooked; throughout, the writers seem trigger-happy about dropping f-bombs, even when it doesn’t add to character development or scene intensity. Most of John’s voiceovers are too ambiguous, obvious, or overdramatic to warrant necessity. And if I hear phrases like, “It’s what dad would want,” or “Wow, it’s so beautiful here” one more time in S2… well, I have no backup threat, but CHANGE THE RECORD. With a cast of this calibre, it would behoove the writers to mix it up a bit – starting with giving Spacek a wider role than sitting in a rocking chair staring wistfully into the ocean’s middle distance.
All that being said, it’s inherently compelling to watch. Danny is a loathsome scumbag, and despite everything that’s been done to him, he’s impossible to root for, and hate-watching is addictive. His slimy arrogance and sweaty wifebeaters are freakin’ repulsive (strangely, there are many parallels between him and the now-super-infamous Robert Durst – both are murderers and drug users, both have vendettas against their wealthy families, and both are visibly deranged). And the photography and cinematography are flawless, making the show aesthetically appealing enough to make up for its shortcomings.
It remains to be seen whether Netflix renews Bloodline for a second season. They would be crazy not to given how the finale ended, and despite the currently uncertain fate of Lilyhammer, none of their original programs have been axed. Given Bloodline‘s instant popularity, there’s no reason they’d change their formula, either. As Vox pointed out, the very craft of storytelling has been sacrificed for binge-friendly cliffhangers, which is good for business – the sooner you finish the season, the sooner you can re-watch it.
As I said earlier, this seems to be Netflix’s attempt at True Detective‘s massive success. Both shows contain deeply wounded characters who drink to forget the death-y pains of the past; both frequently get high on their own philosophy; both are set in the initially idyllic, unnervingly loamy swamps of the south; and both use those settings as omniscient extra characters that juxtapose natural beauty with humanity’s monstrosities. But even if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, it means always being a step behind.
Though originally from Virginia, Kelsey recently graduated from the University of Georgia with a cavalcade of neat degrees. She's written for other sites like Wide Open Country, Half Past, Seeing Trees Music, The Cropper, InfUSion Magazine, and Blurt. Kelsey’s greatest weakness is a large bowl of pho, and though she doesn’t know it yet, her friends will soon host a soup intervention for her. In her spare time she enjoys exploring abandoned buildings, crafting dad-humor puns, collecting vintage key chains, writing long lists that utilize the Oxford comma, and acting like Larry David.