In ceaseless jokes about the kookiness of Florida, popular culture often overlooks the deeper sense of dread and sadness that comes with its beautifully beguiling nature. Maybe you’ve noticed: Beneath Florida’s forced smiles and Mickey Mouse sunshine, it’s a partly cloudy Eden overrun with snakes.
This is certainly the humid atmosphere of Netflix’s absorbingly unhappy new drama/thriller “Bloodline,” which began streaming — and steaming — Friday. Set in the Florida Keys, it’s about the Rayburns, a family that comes undone after the return of oldest brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), an addict with a history of mooching from his parents, Robert and Sally (Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek), who spent decades building their beachfront inn into a successful resort.
Danny comes home for a family celebration, arriving by bus from Miami, invited but not entirely welcomed. At issue is what will become of the Rayburns’ valuable business and property once Robert and Sally are too old to run it.
Favored second son John (Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights”) is also the town sheriff, concurrently investigating the murder of a teenage girl; the next sibling, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), is a party boy, but he’s a dependable and fiercely loyal part of the family operation; youngest child Meg (Linda Cardellini of “Mad Men”) is an attorney who figured out the surest way to win her father’s approval was through the appearance of success. And it worked: Robert chose Meg to draw up his will, but it turns out she may not have followed his wishes to the letter.
It occurs to me that what I’ve just described sounds dangerously close to a soap premise, such as Fox’s successful “Empire,” which is built around the idea that one child inherits everything.
“Bloodline,” from co-creators Todd Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler (the trio behind “Damages”), runs a whole lot deeper and more deliberate than that, but you wouldn’t be mistaken to view it as a somber, all-white version of “Empire,” in which a cast of anti-Cookies and anti-Luciouses will do just about anything to not say what’s on their minds. The series might also work for viewers still mourning the loss of “Parenthood,” if they can stand to replace the schmaltz with a body count. “I always thought the greatest thing that happened to me was being born a Rayburn,” Chandler’s John explains in a voice-over. “Now I’m not so sure. … We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.”
Through dribs and drabs of flashbacks in the first few episodes, viewers get a sense that a great deal of the Rayburn family’s issues have to do with the fact that these adult children are still far too beholden to the wishes of their parents. (Enmeshed, as therapists used to say, when the word codependent didn’t seem harsh enough.)
Where most TV shows immediately address such elephants in such rooms in order to maximize conflicts, “Bloodline” seems especially intent on rationing out its secrets. We see glimpses of how Robert was a physically abusive and temperamental patriarch when the children were young, especially where Danny, the bad seed, was concerned.
Danny’s return fills his siblings with a sense of menace, as they ask one another: What does he want? What will he do to get it? What can we do to stop him?
There’s not a lackluster performance among the superb cast members of “Bloodline”; Chandler and Cardellini, especially, are in top form. Nevertheless, it’s Mendelsohn, as Danny, who makes the best of a script that at times seems overly opaque. The writing and direction here have given Danny all the power, therefore it’s not very long before a viewer is also afraid of what Danny might do, mostly because we’re given so little else to go on. A flash-forward scene seems to give away too much too soon, which has the effect of making scenes in later episodes seem like backfill.
I’ve enjoyed “Bloodline” so far, but it’s impossible to say if it’s consistently this good, because Netflix would share only three episodes (out of 13) with critics. Over on “regular” TV (obligatory patooey! here), critics are accustomed to this practice because shows are still in production at the time we’re viewing the first couple of episodes. We’re used to sometimes having to make our best guess as to how the rest of the season will evolve.
But in Netflix’s case, all 13 episodes must be readied for delivery to subscribers on the same day, so there’s no compelling reason to not share more (if not all) of the episodes with trusted reviewers, so that we can more fairly gauge — not spoil — the experience for the binge viewer. Sending me three episodes of “Bloodline” is like asking a film critic to leave a media screening 30 minutes after it starts and telling her to come back on Friday to see the rest of the movie on opening day. Rather than a thumbs up or thumbs down or a star rating, Netflix seems to be asking for a reviewer to issue a shrug.
13 episodes began streaming Friday on Netflix.