Four episodes in to the Florida Keys-set family saga, Hannah Dunleavy wonders if they might finally have hit the drama jackpot.
Netflix is having a good run of things of late. It’s brought a contemporary classic to the UK masses (Breaking Bad), revived a cult comedy (Arrested Development), launched a critically lauded dramedy (Orange is the New Black), successfully remade what was thought to be a unique political thriller (House of Cards) and unveiled a joyous sitcom (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.) It’s no HBO, but it’s an impressive track record for an upstart in the TV world.
What Netflix is now overdue is a top-drawer original drama and, on paper, Bloodline should be it.
The Florida-set family saga comes from the makers of Damages, which passed me by but certainly had its fair share of admirers. More strikingly it has a dynamite cast: Emmy winner Kyle Chandler, Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, and Ben Mendelsohn, who doesn’t bring any statuettes to the party but has had the good grace to be the best thing in everything I’ve ever seen him in. Not really spoiler alert, it’s no different here. Rounding out the ensemble are the reliable Linda Cardellini and Chloe Sevigny, and Sam Shepard, who has a Pulitzer Prize – irrelevant, I know, but pretty cool regardless. Last but not least is the improbably named Norbert Leo Butz, a two-time Tony award winner. A personal tragedy means the Broadway star refuses to appear in anything using violence against women to add suspense to the plot or titillate the audience, necessitating he turn down almost every TV script he’s sent. So, catch him while you can, it may be a while before he graces our screens again.
In short, it’s a set-up that’s there for the squandering. Roll titles.
In truth, the whole of Bloodline is there in that title sequence. A sunny beach falls dark as a swirling storm cloud gathers, until finally, in the distance a new dawn breaks.
Enter Danny Rayburn (Mendelsohn), who’s returning home, to a family celebration at his parent’s hotel resort on the Keys. He’s on a bus, which tells you everything you need to know about the sackload of trouble he’s bringing with him. Despite that, Bloodline has a heavy-handed voiceover telling us this.
It’s one of the two drama devices – along with the flash-forward – continually deployed in the opening three episodes to really hammer home to the audience that what’s going to transpire here between Danny, his parents (Spacek and Shepard), brothers John and Kevin (Chandler and Butz) and sister Meg (Cardellini) is likely to go very, very wrong. If I didn’t already dislike narration and flash-forwards, this overkill really does for them here, made all the more disappointing because, although they might be necessary in traditional weekly drama, this is Netflix, where it takes more effort to stop watching than it does to continue.
The good news is it’s a trick which is largely dispensed with by the fourth episode, where a policy of genuine tension and cast chemistry allows you to make your mind up about who these people are and where they’re heading.
The Keys is an endlessly scenic and symbolic landscape to set a piece about what lives under the surface of calm waters, as well as the looming threat of the violence of nature.
Four episodes in there’s a real sense of the past haunting the Rayburns, as well as a fear of what awaits them, plus a mystery to solve for John, who’s also a police detective, which will undoubtedly bring its own problems.
With a cast like this it’s almost a superfluous narration to say everyone is great, but it’s worth noting that Mendelsohn is superb as the prodigal son, who’s both pain-fuelled sad sack and unmistakable menace.
Is Bloodline Netflix’s first great original drama? It’s certainly made a promising start.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.