In order to fully enjoy Netflix’s new television show, “Bloodline,” one must learn the art of patience. It’s a show that can easily be equal parts rewarding and equal parts frustrating.
The series begins strongly. “Bloodline” tracks the interactions of the Rayburn clan, whose lives as exceptional members of the Florida Keys community are disrupted by the arrival of the family’s black sheep, eldest son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn). His return opens wounds previously healed and secrets thought closely kept.
Within the pilot, creators Glen Kessler, Todd Kessler and David Zelman (“Damages”) quickly demonstrate exactly where the show is headed. Through the use of flash-forwards, Kessler and company reveal a number of salacious plot details, including the death of Danny Rayburn. The real promise of “Bloodline,” however, lies not in the show’s revealing twists but in its exploration of how exactly the upstanding Rayburns went from “good and holy” point A to “dark and murky” point B. Are the Rayburns bad people? Did Danny deserve to die? “Bloodline” considers these questions with gusto — or, at least, that’s what’s promised in the first few episodes.
For most of the rest of the season, “Bloodline” lacks focus. Despite the intriguing premise, the show is slow-paced, stretching out a thin plot and then adding in filler. Although the show belongs to the Rayburns and should solely concentrate on the Rayburns, its episodes often stray far from the central family. At the end of the pilot, the writers of “Bloodline” introduce a season-long murder mystery involving the washed-up, charred corpse of an unnamed young woman. This mystery, however, never takes off because it’s entirely unrelated to the Rayburn family. The only reason we know about the investigation is that John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler), the second oldest Rayburn son, is the detective in charge. Although John’s investigation of this apparent homicide makes the season’s end game more interesting, for the most part, it’s an unnecessary detour that detracts from the show’s narrative thrust.
If only the screen time for the investigation had been used to better explore each Rayburn. The way “Bloodline” depicts and handles each member of the Rayburn family is uneven, favoring Danny’s viewpoint and his storyline. His presence tends to border on dominating, and he’s easily given the most screen time. In doing so, Kessler, Kessler and Zellman make us more biased towards his character, shredding the ambiguity that the first few episodes worked so ardently to create.
This intense attention to Danny stifles the remaining Rayburns’ development. Although John receives some significant characterization in his interactions with Danny and Diana (Jacinda Barrett), John’s wife, the other Rayburns are not so lucky. Both Meg (Linda Cardellini) and Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) are plagued by relationship troubles, and that’s it: There’s nothing particularly exciting or two-dimensional about these characters. Yet the worst victim of the show’s obsession with Danny is Sally (Sissy Spacek), the matriarch of the family, who is essentially kept in the dark for most of the season. Despite being a well-respected actress, Spacek isn’t exactly given a whole lot to do. “Bloodline” fails to develop its characters, as well as to best exploit the talented actors and actresses on the show.
Regardless, I don’t think “Bloodline” is a bad show. The writers may reveal major plot points early on, but the beginning and concluding episodes manage to pack in a lot of tension. More importantly, even though Danny is a problematic character, Mendelsohn is terrific in the role. He’s naturally able to convey a sense of unease with a smirk or pure changes in inflection. At times, Mendelsohn seems to carry both the writing and the show itself. In this regard, “Bloodline” is worth watching for his performance alone.
Contact Marty Semilla at msemilla ‘at’ stanford.edu