Created by Damages’ Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, Bloodline had a premiere fit for a blockbuster film during the Berlinale’s Television Drama Series Days where I saw the pilot. The series will be available for streaming on Netflix starting March 20.
Bloodline stars Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardenelli, and Norbert Butz as adult siblings who reunite to celebrate their elderly parents’ accomplishments in a small, swampy Florida Keys town. Things take a turn for the worst when their black sheep of a brother, Danny (Ben Mendehlson), returns as well. His arrival prompts the unveiling of family secrets and the dismantling of each character’s carefully constructed life.
“After Damages, we wanted to write a show about family,” said Todd A. Kessler. But if you’re looking for a new family drama to fill the Parenthood sized hole in your heart, Bloodline isn’t it.
Throughout the pilot and the second episode, it’s revealed that the ties that bind this family include dread, lies, violence, shame, and guilt — themes that weigh heavy on the characters.
“We tend to get trapped in our roles in a family,” Zelman said. “Family defines who you are, you love them, and you're weighted down by it. How do you honor your family, but break that chain?”
At the start of the pilot, it’s hard to understand exactly why Danny’s come back home. Even though his brother, John Rayburn (Chandler), goes to do the brotherly-love thing and pick him up, Danny chickens out and burns time with a sketchy old pal instead of facing his family.
While the other siblings and their parents, played by Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard, wonder if Danny will make it to the celebration, it’s not hard to see why he’s so hated in the family.
Though Chandler is as solid as ever as the younger, but much more responsible brother, it’s Mendehlson who steals the show.
The series could be hard to follow for those who enjoy a more straightforward serialized drama. Bloodline is a sprawling, time-jumping, ensemble show that’s not easy to digest in one sitting (let alone when that one sitting is you crammed into a packed movie theater with hundreds of other people and Coach Taylor seated a few rows behind you.)
Speaking of Coach Taylor, at the Berlinale Kyle Chandler said, “I only got one episode to read and was very curious about how I was going to do what was asked of me to do as an actor. So I just jumped into it with pleasure. I'm excited about the development of a character that I haven’t gotten to know yet.”
By the end of the pilot, it feels like even the other characters haven’t even really gotten to know each other, let alone themselves.
Nothing is clear in Bloodline. The drama is steeped in mystery, so much so that the writing team chooses to pull viewers along by seemingly giving away the end of the series at the end of the pilot. Revealing a shocking flash-forward ending at the beginning is an interesting device that completely subverts one’s view of Chandler’s character as the perpetual good guy. That particular storytelling risk probably wouldn’t have worked with any other actor, which make Chandler’s casting all the more genius. He’s the everyman, the good guy, so it’s hard to imagine him doing a very bad thing, and yet in Bloodline he does.
Netflix is the perfect home for Bloodline since the platform lends itself to binge watching entire seasons. According to the creators, Bloodline was structured more like a 13-hour thriller movie rather than a TV series.
“It wraps around you slowly like a boa constrictor,” Kessler said. “Our style of storytelling benefits from not watching one episode at a time.”
Still, whether or not you’re a fan of binge watching, I think taking breaks from watching the show will be necessary to comprehend everything that is happening. For me, a remote control to pause, rewind, and unfortunately at times, fast forward through some of the action in Bloodline would’ve been nice.
While The Affair has chosen a “he said, she said” storytelling method, Bloodline has taken a more literary, non-linear narrative approach to TV storytelling.
The frequent quick cuts and time jumps were often jarring. Not to mention the flashbacks and flash forwards that yank you through the story. No matter how intriguing these flashes may be, they didn’t help make what was happening in the episodes any less confusing. And yet, I think people will stay tuned for the mystery of it all. The “What happened?” and the “What the heck is going on?”
While Chandler and Mendehlson’s characters feel intriguingly complicated and three-dimensional, much more can be done with the youngest brother, Kevin Rayburn (Norbert Butz), who for all his rage and anger felt one-dimensional in both episodes.
Disappointingly, the women of the Rayburn clan would probably all fail the Bechdel test. The sister, Meg (Linda Cardenelli), the mother, Sally (Sissy Spacek), and John’s wife (Jacinda Barrett), spend their time on screen worrying, nagging, and trying to ensure that the the men in their family are protected and get along. One can only hope that the writing goes a bit deeper as the season progresses, fleshing each woman out and giving them more to do.
It’s hard to predict if this drama will be as big of a hit as Netflix’s other acclaimed one-hour series, House of Cards. Nevertheless, Netflix should be applauded for taking creative risks in its programming because a drama this murky would almost certainly sink, not swim on network TV.
If the unfolding mystery and dysfunctional family drama isn’t enough for viewers, Bloodline is worth watching for the stellar cast alone.
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