Netflix's new family drama Bloodline works as a kind of southern noir, set in the steamy Florida Keys and dripping with a dark and seedy atmosphere hidden beneath the guise of privilege and essential comfort. There's tension, bad memories, and murder dripping in the air for the Rayburns, a wealthy family with lots of secrets buried in their past. It includes one particularly bad one which drives the action of this first season, and the motivations of the central character Danny Rayburn, the eldest sibling played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn in a complex, darkly fascinating performance.
The series is created and run by the same team who ran Damages for five seasons (one of my favorite shows of the last decade), and like that show, this one employs the framing device of a narrator telling us a story that happened in the recent past from the point of view of the present day, with various flashforwards included throughout the season regarding Danny's ultimate fate. Unlike Damages, this series focuses a lot more heavily on its main characters rather than its central mystery, which has both drawbacks and benefits. The mystery that was the focus for each season of Damages was almost always compelling enough to warrant it, and it unveiled enough twists and surprises that you could never see its resolution coming- this one is a bit less mysterious once the impending conclusion is laid out on the table early on, and the heavy character focus during the bulk of the season only occasionally works.
That is to say, it works when we're focused on Danny, by far the most compelling and enigmatic presence on the show, mostly due to Mendelsohn, who carries the screen and manages difficult role with relative ease. He's a commanding figure, whose motivations and goals seem to switch so often you always wonder where he's headed next or what his endgame truly is. As the black sheep of the Rayburn clan, he was cast out by his parents after a tragedy tore the family apart during his childhood, and now his return to the family business and home threatens to ruin everything his siblings have managed to build for themselves. Fortunately, Mendelsohn demands a lot of screentime, but much of the show is centered around the other Rayburn siblings, who aren't even a quarter as interesting as he is. Frankly, the more you hang with out John, Meg or Kevin Rayburn, the more you end up sympathizing with bad seed Danny for having had such a lame family filled with self-righteous douchebags in the first place.
Not that the cast isn't up to it. This is a very well-acted show, and Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini and Norbert Leo Butz deliver as the Rayburn siblings, as well as Sissy Spacek as matriarch Sally (although she's kind of saddled with the thankless role of mother who looked the other way that nobody wants to upset, etc. One of these days I'd like to see another ruthless matriarch in the style of Justified's Mags Bennett for a change). But the personal lives and dilemmas of the siblings never hold any interest, you never develop any affection for any of them, and their hysterical and paranoid reactions toward their brother Danny, who while mildly sinister looking, never once poses so much as a physical threat toward them, seem wildly over the top, even when Danny's actions put himself and the family business in danger. I also have to mention that poor Kyle Chandler, who I'll always love from Friday Night Lights, is too saddled with a boring and hysterically overreacting wife played by Jacinda Barrett from The Real World, who is of the most distractingly bad actresses I've seen on TV since the early days of January Jones. Plunked right in the middle of such a great cast overall makes it that much worse.
Still, the family dynamics and secrets spilled manage to overcome a draggy middle to make for a pretty involving finish, especially in the last couple of episodes, in which Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn both turn in work worthy of competitive Emmy reels, if enough people end up watching this. As dramatic as the resolution ends up being, it's hard to see how a second season will continue the Rayburn saga minus what was essentially the reason to tune in for this one, but it was well done enough that I'm willing to give it a shot.