When Damages premiered on FX in 2007, many dismissed it as yet another legal procedural. But it soon became clear that the twisty, violent, and morally ambiguous world created by Todd Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler was so much more. Similarly, Netflix’s Bloodline — created by that same Damages team — seems initially like a typical family drama. But Zelman and the Kessler brothers’ particular tone and style make the material as darkly engrossing as Damages, if not even more so.
Bloodline revolves around the Rayburn clan, who own a thriving hotel in the Florida Keys, and who have become something of an institution there. The first episode handles the introductions and exposition through a big family reunion at the hotel, hosted by the patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and the brood’s mother Sally (Sissy Spacek). In turn, we’re given glimpses of their four children: the upstanding Sheriff and family “fixer,” John (Kyle Chandler), attorney Meg (Linda Cardellini), little brother Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), a hot-headed partier, and the black sheep of the family, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn).
Bloodline begins with Danny’s return to the Keys, which is met with wariness from the family. He has come and gone before, and usually only returns to ask for money, before leaving to get involved in some new kind of trouble. Each time he does, he crushes his mother’s spirit, and the family is tired of watching her suffer. But this time, Danny is intent on staying, so Robert leaves the decision up to the his other three children as to whether that should be allowed or not.
Like Damages, Bloodline teases future events through nonlinear storytelling that frames each episode. A (mercifully restrained) voiceover by John gives context to those flash-forwarded scenes, explaining why key moments regarding Danny’s return, and choices made by the children, have seemingly led to a series of unfortunate events. It gives the show a mystery and a drive, but it doesn’t necessarily need it. There are plenty of small moments in the present-day interactions among the Rayburns, with revelations that stem from escalating lies and hidden agendas, that are compelling enough on their own without knowing with certainty that they lead to something terribly dark.
Bloodline also makes great use of its surroundings: conversations drift towards the unbearable heat and broken A/Cs, everyone wears swimsuits under their clothes, and shots of the crystal water and swaying palms solidifies the distinctly coastal atmosphere. Through Danny’s questionable connections, more of the island’s way of life is explored, beyond that of the idyllic setting of the Rayburn’s hotel. Zelman and the Kesslers perfectly capture that laid-back feel of south Florida life, as well as the natural cadence of conversation between and among family members.
None of this comes together in a more pitch-perfect way than in the tragic figure of Danny. Mendelsohn plays the wounded figure with a mixture of charm, fear, innocence, and darkness; a particular kind of lovable loser whose lovability is fading fast as he ages. While his siblings are all beyond ready for him to grow up, they each are dealing with their own issues of stunted adolescence, desperately looking to their father to lead them and make decisions. And when Robert is temporarily left unable to do so, the family begins to slide into chaos.
Despite its flash-forwards and portends of mystery and murder, Bloodline (as of its first three episodes) is also a slow burn, happy to spend time in casually-told anecdotes and silent scenes of watchfulness. It’s a deeply-carved portrait of close family relationships and dynamics, and the show — like another great family drama, Six Feet Under — also plays with history and the past by allowing it to come alive through visions and reveries. For Netflix, it’s much quieter than either Orange is the New Black or House of Cards, but also much deeper, with the “family first” theme setting up a small and deceptively knowable world. Nothing Earth-shattering or bombastic is happening here except the emotions within this family. For them, the ground is shaking mightily. And that makes it something refreshingly different among Netflix’s original series.
Though Bloodline hammers home (perhaps a little too heavily) in its premiere episode about how good life is as a Rayburn, that facade is quickly stripped away by the series’ engrossing exploration of their secrets and personal transgressions. That dedication to character study, and the deftness and naturalism with which it’s handled through its aesthetics and by its cast, makes Bloodline eminently binge-worthy.
In the series, John says he used to think the best thing that could have happened to him was being born a Rayburn. The relief for viewers is that we weren’t; but fortunately, we get to dive into their story and know their secrets anyway.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
All 13 episodes of Bloodline‘s first season will premiere on Netflix Friday, March 20th at 12:01 a.m. PT.