Mmmm, I have missed me some Kyle Chandler…
Some things Netflix’s original series Bloodline is: damn well acted; often mesmerizing; a sunny, humid, rainy Florida noir.
Some things Bloodline is not: completely new; as meaningful as it thinks it is; tightly made.
I’ve been dawdling endlessly on writing up Bloodline. A clean verdict does not come easily to this show, unless I’m willing to damn it with vagueries and faint praise and pile the many, many, very good points under a pile of equivocations and overly convoluted sentences (likely with asides, both parenthetical and comma-delimited, as is my wont).
I also had to watch all the way to the end of Bloodline to decide whether or not it was a good 13-episode series, and I came away with three thoughts from the closing moments:
1) Yes. Very much so.
2) This didn’t need to be 13 episodes.
3) Sigh. They set up a second season that will justify 13 episodes even less than did this one.
Like the first season of House of Cards, Bloodline shows how liberating the streaming setup can be for serialized shows. Variable pacing can match the plot instead of force it along. Episodes can run a little longer or a little shorter, like chapters in a book. A primary tale of a family forced to reopen old wounds is allowed to unfold in and amongst character reveals and a location aesthetic that punctuates every shot.1 Such a structure gives – here especially – a wonderful set of actors plenty of room to do some subtly great work.
Let’s discuss the actors for a moment, as they are far and away the most compelling reason to watch Bloodline. Chief amongst them is Ben Mendelsohn whose performance as the family’s black sheep is at turns highly sympathetic and utterly chilling. Credit to the directing team for setting him up to succeed, but Mendelsohn deserves at least a nomination come awards season for keeping you off balance as to his motivations again and again and again. Countering him is Kyle Chandler!2 Linda Cardellini, and Norbert Leo Butz3 as his siblings, and the alliterative and just awesome Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard as the clan’s parents. Everyone gives simple, believable performances that elevate their scenes individually and as a family.4
But – and there’s always a but, or always should be a but in these reviews – like the third season of House of Cards, it’s surprisingly easy for an otherwise strong show to drift in this format as well. Bloodline seems to think it’s cleverly hinting that everyone is flawed and thankfully either didn’t make that cliche a central theme (or poorly executed making it a central theme). It also never quite integrates its flashback/flash-forward bits into the tale of today, to the point that the central flashback – centered on the moments leading up to a long-ago tragedy – loses its potency for much of the run, only to flop back into relevance solely on the basis of the inherent horror of watching what happened.5
And most bothersome, Bloodline is the latest series to somehow not quite fill its 13 episodes. I can’t point to specific moments that should have been cut, and that’s a different problem, but I know there were times – especially in the middle – where I was waiting for things to go somewhere. The importance and seriousness of moments and looks and lines became underplayed, their effects assumed. Why, when you technically have complete freedom to script and pace your episodes, did someone not catch this and fix it?
I think the answer to that lies in the closing moments, where things have (often uneasily) resolved for most of the characters. The display of this coda is perfunctory, again – it’s assumed to mean something just by being. Into this deceptively sudden wrap-up comes the twist(!) appearance of the presumable prompt for season 2. A prompt – a character – that at a glance doesn’t look like it can drive five episodes as well as Mendelsohn’s prodigal son did, let alone an entire season.
Beyond these flaws, though, Bloodline is a steamy little noir with a couple of solid little mysteries ambling towards one another throughout. It’s anchored by marvelous performances that create genuine moments of dread and of smiles, of hurt and of intrigue. It doesn’t do all this perfectly, but I enjoyed dipping in and out of the season and watching things unfold.
A wary eyebrow raised to whether this 13 hour movie should bother with a sequel, though.
- Florida noir is a less-seen breed, and is the same amount of humid and weathered and sometimes grimy as the state whose name it bears. It’s not always as enjoyable to watch stuff set in Florida and Bloodline uses the paradise/purgatory dynamic to great effect. Side side note – I’ve always dug contemporary California noir; you should check the way-too-short-lived FX series Terriers if you want a good example of that. ↵
- I may have to rewatch Friday Night Lights now. For science. ↵
- to a lesser degree – it sometimes felt like he was in a different well-acted show ↵
- Trying to avoid long running lists of actors with no commentary beyond ‘they’re great!’ but an additional shoutout to Chloë Sevigny, Katie Finneran, and Jamie McShane. They know what they did. ↵
- I won’t spoil it, although I will note that this series does touch on child abuse and the death of a child and later episodes especially may trigger reactions from some viewers. ↵