On paper, “Bloodline” reads as the next great Netflix drama. Buzz behind the series, still weeks away from premiering, is enough evidence in support of the show’s obvious allures. Combining a cast most feature film directors would envy with the creators of “Damages” — a dramatically daring, if flawed, cult favorite — is enough to stir any viewer’s interest, if only for the hopes of seeing a Glenn Close-level performance from Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard or any other members of the stacked cast. The vast reach of the Netflix platform (now past 50 million global subscribers) only adds to the allure, as the ease of access and “user’s choice” scheduling makes subscribers more willing to try a now-trusted Originals Department.
For the most part, these goals are met. From as much as can be gleaned from only the first three episodes, “Bloodline” delivers on its promise of an acting showcase set within an intriguing tale. Viewers may be hard-pressed to forget what they’ve seen after the pilot, and it’s unlikely anyone who starts won’t find one way or another to finish Netflix’s 13-episode first season.
It’s what comes after the culmination of Season 1 that could become a problem.
“Bloodline” is heavily dependent on its twists — much like “Damages” — and while we won’t be spoiling any of the many divulged early on in the season, it already feels safe to say the series needs more than shock and awe to succeed at the same level at “House of Cards.” The artistry in Beau Willimon’s adaptation both literally and figuratively smooths over any of its rough edges, whereas “Bloodline” is harsh in its structuring. Captured with the sun-caked and sandy beauty of its Florida Keys setting by cinematographer Jaime Reynoso (“The Glades,” “Persons Unknown”), only this aspect of the series’ formal elements works at the high level necessary to make a sensational drama truly great.
Tracking the lives of the well-off Rayburn family, “Bloodline” focuses on a singular, seemingly unimportant event — one son’s return home — before delving into its very specific repercussions. Kyle Chandler has been put forth as the face of the series (a wise marketing move, given his devoted “Friday Night Lights” fandom), but this is really Ben Mendolsohn’s show. Chandler plays John Rayburn (Shepard), the second son of Robert Rayburn who established a successful island getaway locale in the Florida Keys with his wife, Sally (Spacek). John now patrols the town as its sheriff, helped by his sister’s (Linda Cardellini) long-term boyfriend. Meg’s a restless attorney and the youngest brother Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is an affable boozehound who his father lays to his credit.
It’s Robert who lays all this out for us in a somewhat grating expository scene in Episode 1. Greeting guests for a family party at the resort, the aging family patriarch addresses each one of his children individually, but speaks to them as if the invited family and old friends had never met his children before — much like the audience hasn’t. His speech ends in another less-than-subtle moment when he’s forced to mention the family’s black sheep brother, a man who no one knew would even attend the “important” event, and one who the audience clearly understands has some daddy issues from the get go. Yet Mendelsohn — an actor you may recognize from “Killing Them Softly” or “The Place Behind the Pines” — elevates Danny beyond his expected depravity to a heartbreaking state of endearment. His performance is one of such ownership it’s a wonder he’s not the go-to villain in every crime thriller or comic book adaptation there is (though he did appear in “The Dark Knight Rises”).
Right there with him is Chandler, in talent and execution if not screen time. Though his straight-and-arrow protagonist is given the largely unnecessary task of narrating a few choice moments of the story, John doesn’t seem half as vital or unique as his brother. Both have secrets, as does everyone in this densely-packed mystery, but the what’s alluded to in John’s past serves more as psychological evidence to his current state than relevant to his chosen actions. More plainly put, he’s around less and less in subsequent episodes. Creators Glenn and Todd Kessler along with Daniel Zelman choose to frame episodes much like Mitch Hurwitz did in “Arrested Development” Season 4, with one sibling taking on the brunt of the story for each new hour.
On the whole, “Bloodline” feels like an inverted take on the “Arrested Development” dynamic. While Hurwitz’s landmark comedy made light of the trials and tribulations of a well-off, upper class family, the new Netflix drama is its darkest timeline (both even incorporate boats as thematic triggers). “Bloodline” creates a unique, insular world, but also one without the heartbeat that gave life to its alt-world, comedic brother. Rarely do we escape the distinctly depressed insular universe of the Reynolds’ family, making for an experience both intoxicating and claustrophobic. What separates the two is how heartily you buy into the show’s big twist, unveiled at the end of the first episode, and it’s the unknown payoff to this crux that gives hope and foretells doom; hope for a course correction in the final 10 episodes, even if what’s we’ve seen so far indicates choppy waters ahead.
“Bloodline” premieres March 20 with all episodes available via Netflix.