[This is a review of Bloodline season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Very early on, Bloodline evokes a strong comparison to its creators’ previous series Damages. After all, both series tell the story of morally compromised people, who have (or will have) made choices they cannot unmake, and those choices have (or will have) sent them on a downward spiral into a very dark place.
That’s not entirely why the new series from Glenn and Todd Kessler, and Daniel Zelman is so reminiscent of the trio’s aforementioned effort. In fact, between shifting from a high-profile New York law firm to the swampy-yet-idyllic, family-owned resort of Islamadora, Florida, and the change in cast from Glenn Close and Rose Byrne to Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn, the two could not be more different.
Instead, it’s the odd decision to utilize the same flash-forward structure utilized in Damages that initially feels like a warmed-over gimmick – one that, the first time around, didn’t necessarily turn out to be as successful as it could have been. As such, the choice is a curious one. On one hand, it turns a whodunit into a whydunit, by not only revealing that the story will be about a murder, but it also reveals (or seems to reveal) the identity of the victim and the perpetrator. The only thing the audience has left to do is do the narrative math and they’ll eventually wind up at the same conclusion.
And yet, even though the less than conventional device actually winds up feeling very conventional in the hands of these particular creators, it may yet prove to be a necessary tactic, as the series’ slow burn seems to be campaigning to epitomize the phrase. In fact, it would not be overstating things to describe the series premiere as moving at a glacial pace.
While matters of pacing this early on could potentially become a problem for any other series, it actually works in Bloodline’s favor, as the audience is encouraged to let the ol’ auto play function do its thing, and lead them into the next episode. In a sense, the series is perfect for the Netflix binge-watching model, and it speaks to the growing awareness of creators as to how a series works differently on a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon, as opposed to the more traditional method of broadcast or cable networks.
Assuming your audience is going to jump right into the next episode does allow for certain things to happen – or not happen, as the case may be – right away. It allows for the narrative to take more leisurely strides at first, building momentum gradually, instead of sprinting out the starting gate like a racehorse.
That is most definitely how Bloodline feels during its series premiere – unimaginatively titled: ‘Part 1.’ There is a deliberate quality to how the story of the insular Rayburn clan initially unfolds, as the various members gather for a monumental anniversary, and the various dynamics between each of the four siblings and their aging parents (played by Sam Shepherd and Sissy Spacek) are revealed. Long before patriarch Robert Rayburn describes his children with glowing (and not so glowing) remarks in front of a group of revelers, there is already a sense of who the Rayburn children really are. Kyle Chandler’s John Rayburn isn’t too far removed from the indelible Coach Taylor he played on Friday Night Lights – until the final moments of the episode, that is – while Linda Cardellini’s Meg and Norbert Leo Butz’s Kevin initially appear to be affable (but certainly not perfect) members of what is a fairly average, well-to-do clan of Floridians.
But, for all the sense of character those opening scenes depict, there’s no more immediate sense of who someone is than the unfussy introduction of Ben Mendelsohn’s Danny. As much as an appearance by Kyle Chandler tends to evoke warmth and sagacity, the arrival of Ben Mendelsohn is almost always met with ominous portent. It doesn’t matter what he’s appearing in, it can be a dark drama like Animal Kingdom, a superhero drama like The Dark Knight Rises, or an irreverent comedy like Girls, and the guy just exudes a certain level of doom. And to their credit, the Kesslers and Zelman put Mendelsohn’s innate menace and irascibility to good use, as his presence immediately upsets the balance within the incredibly tight-knit Rayburn clan.
The mystery of the discordant family dynamic, and the end scene that apparently depicts Danny’s death – or the moments very soon thereafter – gives Bloodline most of its energy. Sure, it’s low energy, but it somehow works in the show’s favor. Despite the explosive reveal in the premiere’s final moments, this is not a high-octane thriller relying on explosive reveals; it is a slow-building suspense drama that wants to pull you into it’s swampy morality and make you feel the oppressiveness of the Florida heat.
The dialogue can sometimes be as thick and muggy as the setting’s atmosphere, but it is part and parcel to the series’ neo-noir ambitions. And although the slow burn initially feels like it comes dangerously close to losing its spark in the first hour, the pitch perfect performances by the entire cast – especially Chandler and Mendelsohn – keep things nice and warm until the parallel storylines can converge and catch fire.
All 13 episodes of Bloodline season 1 are currently available to stream on Netflix.
Photos: Saeed Adyani/Netflix