Kyle's Career Filmstrip: TV Series and Movies

Mar 23, 2015

New Netflix drama ‘Bloodline’ masters the slow-burn family tragedy


Every picture-perfect family has its issues. What might look like an advertisement for the “American Dream” is typically a façade. The Rayburns, a well-off Florida family who operates a scenic Florida Keys inn, are no exception to the rule.

“Bloodline,” the latest in Netflix’s excellent lineup of original series, re-establishes the importance of a good old fashioned slow-burn. The initial episodes crawl — only hinting at the hurricane of trouble headed for the Rayburn lineage.

But fragmented leaks of disturbing flash-forwards and ambiguous narration from the family’s designated arbitrator John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) will entice anyone curious to continue watching.
The moment eldest brother Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives at his parents’ 45th anniversary party, an arduous chain reaction is set in motion that threatens the very core of a family renowned within its community.

John and Danny exist as antitheses to each other. John is a stoic detective of sound mind and a dedicated loyalist to his blood. Danny is the Rayburn problem-child who remains estranged until he either needs to borrow money or refuge from poor life choices.

Danny’s persona teeters between ominous and lovable – his childhood is littered with repressed memories that haunt his thoughts. Robert Rayburn (Sam Shepard) is a scornful father with a checkered record of parenting. His infamous temper has always homed in on Danny and a tragic loss has imprinted an insatiable animosity that still boils over three decades later.

Sissy Spacek is Sally, the seemingly innocent mother in denial of her family’s closeted skeletons. Danny’s arrival has his compassionate mother optimistic. He claims to be reformed man — returning to the family business only to help out.

Skeptical and dismissive, Robert delegates the decision of letting Danny stay with his three children, Meg (Linda Cardellini), Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) and John. The Rayburns spend much of the series brooding over Danny’s return and whether his newfound attitude is genuine or a ruse.

“Bloodline” follows a deliberately gradual pace. Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman are the show’s creators who refine their disjointed timeline and cliffhanger style from the equally plodding series “Damages” they created before.

The 13-episode series is a relentlessly dark, tantalizing tale of unravelling family drama that seats the Rayburns amongst the greatest of dysfunctional television families.

Visually, “Bloodline” authentically emulates the sticky humidity of the Florida swamplands and its inhabitants. Every character is coated in sweat and dressed to deal with it. The direction style accentuates the nuanced and emotion and subtle plot developments with purpose.

While the dialogue never strives as the show’s strong point, each cast member elevates the script with visceral and top-notch performances.

Mendelsohn and Chandler emanate an electric chemistry as brothers conflicted. Two-time Tony Award winner Butz is both fierce and vulnerable in a way few actors manage. There isn’t a dud in the bunch and every episode is a lesson in how to generate a sensational cast.

Exemplary performances can only carry a plot so far though, meaning patience is key with “Bloodline.” There are long stretches of character development and soft conversations. Fans of breakneck shows like “American Horror Story” beware, “Bloodline” demands a level focus and composure rarely asked of audiences nowadays.

Perhaps “Bloodline” might have benefited from tightening to a 10-episode formula. Either way, the creators should be lauded for taking a risk like this in today’s market for television dramas.
Witnessing the Rayburns’ sanity disintegrate is a fascinating ordeal. The ebb and flow of emotion is taxing to watch and when season one concludes you can’t help but feel terribly conflicted about the whole odyssey.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about “Bloodline.” So much of it has been done before. But a series that manages to wrangle first-rate acting, stunning visuals, thick plot lines and tension into a taut package is no small feat.

But therein lays the beauty of mastering the slow-burn — allotting time for a hefty narrative to layer itself with nigh tangible amounts of tension is a bold move from the “Bloodline” creators that will hopefully carry over into season two.

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