“Bloodline,” Netflix’s newest original series, begins with a family reunion in the Florida Keys. Siblings and parents catch up on the sandy white beach, under the bright blue sky, while the smell of the barbeque practically seeps through the screen. But the mood is anticipatory — the pronouncement of the landscape’s colors, whether the green of the grass or the blue of the ocean, conveys a vibe that’s a bit too sunny to be believed. [Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Bloodline,” “The Affair” and “Rectify”.]
The Keys are a perfect setting for noir, then, as paradise can turn to hell with the snap of a finger. In “Bloodline,” the warm embracements are quickly contrasted with a frightening flash-forward of John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler), carrying his presumably-deceased brother, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), through the swampy mangroves in the pouring rain. And as John’s ominous voiceover quickly makes clear, he and his other siblings are complicit in what we see.
The opening minutes of “Bloodline” rather perfectly ascertain a new trend happening in dramatic television right now: the family noir. These shows mesh the fatalistic storytelling methods and unwaveringly tense mood of noir with the secret-spilling and splashy soapiness of the family drama. The conceit of these new series is to realize what’s common to family-centric fiction within a construct that is both unsettling and pessimistic.
The looming danger of “Bloodline” works alongside the time-shifting fatalism of Showtime’s “The Affair” as well as the Gothic menace of Sundance’s “Rectify.” In each of these series (not to mention others), stories unfold slowly, with rare humor and hauntingly clear family dynamics. The family noir tells stories of marriage, siblinghood and parenthood through a prism in which time and mood provide as much detail as narrative and character. The effect, then, is a more sensory engagement with the family chronicle: a way to interpret the dark underbelly of familial relationships by osmosis.
A Fatal Conclusion in “The Affair”
Inevitability plays a big part across these series. In “The Affair,” it’s right there in the title. Noah (Dominic West) is introduced as happily married to Helen (Maura Tierney), a little anguished over work and ready to kick back in Montauk with his family over summer vacation. But you need not even look to the show’s marketing material to know Noah will stray from his marriage, as the opening title sequence sufficiently teases the show’s narrative construct.
Creator Sarah Treem doesn’t treat infidelity as a definitive moment; rather, it provides the framework to build around. She shifts points-of-view between Noah and Alison (Ruth Wilson), the married Montauk resident with whom Noah becomes acquainted at a local diner. Like the writers of “Bloodline,” she also jumps the timeline forward periodically — evoking “True Detective” — as Noah and Allison are individually interviewed by detectives about a mysterious, as-yet-to-happen event. But the tone of the flash-forwards is rather muted: Treem presses on the idea that, in regards to the affair in question, “this can only end badly.” It’s a symbolic, even-heightened approach to consequence and punishment, alluding to murder and danger and implying the indirect responsibility of Noah and Allison.
“The Affair” tells a relatively simple story through a flashy, heavily-stylized lens. Its crafty storytelling devices illuminate more complex ideas of self-image, distorted reality and gender appropriation. It’s also a despairing account of family, told within the gripping guise of sexy, soapy mystery. The relationship between Noah and Helen is introduced not as idyllic, but functional: Treem and her writers mark the strains on a marriage that come with parenting and aging, but work to convey the deep love and affection still shared. Alison and Cole, conversely, are younger but also more troubled, contending with the overwhelming grief that comes with losing a child.
In both cases, the endpoint of this story is teased distressingly. The spooky mood of the show, often taking place on the deserted, expansive Montauk beaches, nicely accompanies the shaky and unreliable perspectives we’re provided. And more importantly, the families are constructed with complete naturalism. Their familiar and relatable dynamics play out through a manipulated timeline and isolated locale — essentially, people considered ordinary are placed in circumstances beyond the ordinary. “The Affair” makes the case that these families — through this near-experimental set-up — are to be met with an inevitable, fatal conclusion, and that said conclusion is sweepingly parabolic of typical human behavior.
The Haunted History of “Rectify”
“Rectify” also plays with time, but predominantly calls to the past. Over two seasons, the Ray McKinnon-created drama has tracked Daniel Holden’s (Aden Young) reintegration into his family and the small Georgia town of Pawley. Decades earlier, he’d been convicted on rape and murder charges, spending the entire time in-between on death row. As a protagonist, Daniel is a risky figure to get behind: he’s soft-spoken, gentle and extremely intelligent, but not without a dark side. The trick of “Rectify” is the layer of menace with which it’s imbued Daniel: the mystery of the actual murder remains intact — he was released on a technicality — and a late Season 1 event revealed our hero as wrestling with far more demons than we’d previously willed ourselves to believe.
Like “The Affair” and “Bloodline,” “Rectify” is incredibly specific with location. This Southern Gothic slow-burn is characterized by the deep silences and soft beauty of the muggy Georgia landscape, as well as an undercurrent of danger that’s difficult to detect. Sometimes, it’s in the town, a tight-knit community that has mostly turned against Daniel and marked him a rapist and a murderer. At others, it’s Daniel himself who projects a subtle threat. But most fascinating in “Rectify” is the positioning of the Holden family, at odds with their community and, more intensely as the story rolls on, at odds with themselves. The most durably-menacing sensation creeps out of these dynamics, clouded by secrecy and guilt and one big elephant who never seems to leave the room.
McKinnon carefully sketches out the many family members individually, from Daniel’s steely, jaded and deceptively dependent sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) to his alternately suspicious and troubled step-brother Teddy. They are flawed, well-rounded characters who remain sympathetic even at their worst. It’s an important foundation for “Rectify” to rest on; as the sense of menace escalates, both within and beyond the family, there’s a wistfulness in the viewing experience. The elicitation in the cinematography is almost dreamlike, the show progressing like a memory painting in motion. You feel this sense of unity and family slowly fading.
The dread comes from all sides, and yet at the center remains this family, once shattered and still haunted by what happened to Daniel. Like in “The Affair,” the world beyond Pawley is totally foreign to “Rectify” (see “Donald the Normal,” the episode in which Daniel goes to Atlanta and promptly adopts a pseudonym). From its swampy creeks to its glistening coffee shops, this small town holds the Holden family still in place and time. Every little corner in Pawley is infused with inescapable history, every one of its residents quick to recall it. This juxtaposition of physical proximity and emotional isolation maintains the simmering danger of “Rectify,” and the developing fissures within the family seem to be placing that simmer on a fatal boil.
“Bloodline” and Family Identity
“Bloodline” explores history in the vein of “Rectify.” More specifically, it identifies the origins of familial roles, each shaped by a cataclysmic event in the Rayburn siblings’ childhood. The time-shifting is intrinsic to the show’s ideas, exploring the formation of identity through flashbacks and, via glimpses of the future, affirming their inflexibility.
As each foray into the past informs, Robert (Sam Shepherd) couldn’t help but blame and physically punish Danny, his son, for the death of Sarah, the late, illusive fifth Rayburn sibling. And John in turn could only protect Danny from their father’s wrath, even as he had his own issues of resentment — which, consequentially, could never be worked out — bubbling under the surface.
Through mood-enhancing voiceover, John contends with his own, contradictory idea of family: just after it’s “revealed” that he and his siblings were responsible for Danny’s death, he mutters with piercing irony, “You never give up on family.” The pessimism of “Bloodline” stems from characters trying and yet ultimately failing to extend beyond their predisposed roles as siblings, children and parents. The resentments cannot be overcome. The muddled feelings of jealousy and inferiority never fade away. Within this noirish template, Danny’s tragic end is a natural consequence of that bleak understanding.
The New Frontier
The nuanced dramatics of “Bloodline,” “The Affair,” “Rectify” and others — including, certainly, the murky mother/son prequel “Bates Motel” — shine a dim light on tropes of the family chronicle. Textured with menace, drowned in cynicism and vitalized by time-shifting intrigue, these series delve into tenuous family bonds with atmosphere to spare. They are immersive mood pieces, cutting with speedy elegance between sun and rain, past and present, love and hate.
They’re also revelatory for TV: not only does the family noir invite sophistication and profound depth to the medium’s ongoing exploration of the American family, but it also represents a major stepping stone in the lessening divide between the small- and big-screen. Boasting the breadth characteristic of a continuing series, as well as the photographic assurance and cinematic intensity of a feature film, these programs are helping to change the look, feel and very idea of TV. Welcome to the new(est) frontier.