How ‘Bloodline’ Breaks the Netflix Original Series Mold


Bloodline is slow. It’s purposely and purposefully slow, excruciatingly sluggish as it teases viewers throughout the first few episodes but never reveals enough. An early voiceover explains, “We’re not bad people, but we’ve done a bad thing,” which should be enough to hold our interest, but the Netflix original constantly tests our commitment to slog through the swamps of Florida, waiting impatiently for something — anything — of note to be revealed. There are surely reasons to stick around, most notably the cast (Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Chloe Sevigny) and the setting, which makes ample use of the sticky, humid, and rainy Florida Keys. But it’s hard to find the energy to hit “next episode” or the urgency to binge-watch, which is surely what Netflix would prefer viewers do. Bloodline is good, but not everyone who starts the first episode will stay with it for long enough to realize it.

The entire first season of Bloodline premiered on Netflix early Friday morning (fair warning: there are a few mild spoilers for the first five episodes ahead), but it was a relatively quiet premiere in comparison to the Tumblr fanfare and live-tweets that met The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or the excitement that precedes any new season of Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards. Bloodline is a quieter, slower, and more introspective show that those three (not to mention, it’s decidedly humorless). The family melodrama follows the Rayburns: patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard), who has recently suffered a few mini-strokes; his wife Sally (Sissy Spacek, who deserves more screen time that she gets); and their four children — Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest and worrisome black sheep of the bunch; John (Kyle Chandler), the ultra-serious sheriff; Meg (Linda Cardellini), a lawyer with a handful of her own secrets; and the youngest, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who is quick to fly off the handle.

At times, the series is obnoxiously explanatory, forgetting the basic rule that writers should “show, don’t tell.” It reminds viewers, over and over, that Danny is the black sheep — not through his actions (which are questionable enough to get the point across), but by making every other Rayburn family member repeatedly say it. The voiceover can be a bit much, too, even when it’s perfectly delivered by Kyle Chandler: “It wasn’t just him I was trying to save. I was trying to save myself. I was trying to save all of us,” he says at one point, although everything after the first sentence was implied.

The action (or “action”) in the pilot begins when Danny returns home for a Rayburn family celebration. He wants to officially move back home and join the family business, but the rest of his family isn’t so sure. There is also an unknown dead woman, Juanita Doe, because the rules of prestige drama dictate that there must be a dead woman in the pilot. But she seems to fall by the wayside in favor of the Rayburn theatrics. To be fair, though — and here’s a big spoiler — the Rayburns have their own dead woman looming over them: a fifth child, the eldest daughter, who died young, leaving Meg destined to always live in her shadow, and be Robert’s second-favorite daughter.

Bloodline tries to keep things moving by employing dreamy flashbacks and flash-forwards, each hinting at the dark and twisted secrets that populate the Rayburn family, and each with the implicit goal of keeping viewers watching. They are certainly intriguing, but these moments of intrigue are far and few between, particularly during the first few episodes, and didn’t generate enough suspense to keep me coming back for more. One telltale sign that Bloodline hasn’t worked for me so far: I actually sought out spoilers for the final episodes, worried that I’d never have the patience to sit through it otherwise.

Much of this has to do with how this show’s approach differs from that of most other Netflix original series, in which the first episode is so engrossing that you have to keep watching (especially if you don’t want every big twist ruined for you on social media). Bloodline moves at a pace that we’re not used to. It promises, from the very beginning, that something big and bold will happen toward the end, but it’s determined to make us really work in order to get there.