“Sometimes, you know something’s coming,” declares Kyle Chandler ominously at the start of Bloodline.
He plays John, the good-hearted son of the Rayburns, who likes taking care of people.
“John likes taking care of people so much he takes care of the whole island!” jokes his dad, Robert (Sam Shepard), as the clan reunite for a big occasion: the anniversary of their Florida Keys hotel. They’re a familiar family for anyone who watches TV, from quick-to-anger brother Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) to matriach Sally (Sissy Spacek) and daughter Meg (Linda Cardellini). Last but not least is Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest son and the black sheep of the family.
Ben Mendelsohn has long been one of the big (and small) screen’s most underrated actors. Ever since Australian crime family drama Animal Kingdom, he has appeared in a range of projects, always stealing scenes with his signature blend of barely-concealed rage. It’s about time that he got a prominent role in a US TV series and he doesn’t just steal the show; he holds onto it and refuses to give it back.
Danny, we quickly realise, couldn’t be more different from the rest of the Rayburn bunch. He rides into town on a bus with no money and a sketchy past hot on his heels. Soon enough, he’s waking up on piers naked and embarrassing the clan, as the head honcho delivers a speech to the celebrating crowds.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that he’s not welcome. That’s partly because of Mendelsohn’s excellent performance, which hangs his uncomfortable emotions on his face for all to see. But it’s also because the script won’t let us forget it, reminding us that he’s the outsider in the sunny paradise, before mentioning once again that John likes caring for people.
Creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, who gave us Damages, are no strangers to spelling certain things out, particularly in the form of flashforwards: teasing glimpses of John carrying a body through a storm interrupt the awkward bonding, reinforcing the promise from that threatening voiceover.
It’s an effective enough device that seems especially suited to Netflix’s binge-viewing model, always triggering the urge to find out how something will happen. That tendency to pre-load everything, though, only highlights the weight placed upon our expectations: of course Danny will cause a scene; of course the siblings are going to turn on each other; of course someone will play a ukelele.
That reliance upon recognisable types seems to extend to the characters too. The cast are an undoubtedly impressive collective, but there is little here to keep you hooked or engaged, other than the narrative structure itself. “You’re life’s not always going to be perfect,” warns dirty Danny in one heated exchange, pointing out that John will need him when the going gets tough. It’s enjoyable to see Mendelsohn get such a free rein, but on first glance, it’s hard to imagine caring about any of the Rayburns in the near future.
Of course, a pilot episode is naturally exposition-heavy, but compared to the first 30 minutes of Amazon’s family drama Transparent, which bagged Netflix’s rival its first Golden Globe this year, the lack of sympathy is striking: Florida’s heating up, but after an hour there, you could well end up feeling cold.
“Sometimes, you know something’s coming,” warns John. After House of Cards and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, could Bloodline be 2015’s proverbial black sheep of Netflix’s excellent original stable? Regardless of any lingering concerns, Episode 1 erupts with an explosive finale that, inevitably, still leaves you wanting to scratch that itch and go back for more. Sometimes, you know what’s going to happen.
All episodes of Bloodline are now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.