The pilot episode of the noirish family drama Bloodline, now streaming on Netflix, has the whiff of a scam: It's 55 minutes of stodgy table setting, introducing the viewer to the complicated relationships of a powerful family on the Florida Keys, but with little grist to its drama. Interspersed are five minutes of delectable flash-forwards promising a shocking conclusion to the story … but only if you watch all 13 episodes. This narrative approach is the hallmark of writers Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, who previously created FX's legal drama Damages. But for Netflix, where every episode of the season is available at once, and instant gratification is only a few binge-watching sessions away (as opposed to 13 weeks), this method of unraveling feels more appropriate.
Despite taking advantage of the network's policy of releasing the entire season at once, Bloodline perhaps wrongly assumes there’s enough in the pilot to hook a viewer for the long haul. After all, 13 hours is a lot of time to ask audiences to dedicate to a new show when there's so much quality TV this spring. To be sure, Bloodline is handsomely produced and boasts such an impressive cast that its opening credits feel a bit like an early victory lap, but the story takes a bit too long to gather steam, even more so than Netflix's House of Cards. It's a risk that may not pay off.
The show's simplest appeal is its actors—even if they're not all instantly familiar, they comprise a murderer's row of TV prestige. Bloodline marks the return of Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) to television—an event worth heralding on its own—as the brow-furrowing John Rayburn, scion of a real-estate empire on the Keys who also serves as the local sheriff. His siblings are the well-meaning lawyer Meg (Freaks & Geeks' Linda Cardellini), the hotheaded Kevin (two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz), and the black sheep Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), whose return sparks tensions in their tightly wound community. Their parents, Robert and Sally, are played by Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek, both unfortunately limited to fairly doddering parts despite their seismic talent.
More so than any of his co-stars, Mendelsohn gives the strongest argument for continuing to tune in. An Australian actor who entered the Hollywood scene as the disturbed antagonist of the 2010 crime thriller Animal Kingdom, he's been turning out solid character work in the intervening years, most notably in the British prison drama Starred Up. As Danny, he's the show's one genuine mystery, a coiled spring of a person who’s viewed darkly by the rest of his family and, according to the flash-forwards, who will get wrapped up in some terrible drama by the end of the season.
Still, Mendelsohn's work isn't quite enough to buoy the show's weak characterization. Viewers know Danny is bad news, because everyone immediately treats him with hostility, and he glowers right back at them. It's easy to surmise that the family is repressing a dark past because the entire first hour of the show sees them talking around their issues; only in later episodes does that history get explored in a meaningful way, with some clever mixing of past and present in several dreamlike sequences. But if there weren't so much chatter about a party the kids have to arrange for their father (the central plot of the first episode) there would be very little evidence that any of the main characters were related. Not to mention the fact that each actor employs a different accent and looks nothing like any of the others.
The show's biggest problem is the molasses-slow plotting, which only speeds up slightly in subsequent weeks. This is Bloodline's most unavoidable similarity to Damages, which began every season with two storylines: the present and the future. In the present, which made up the majority of the episode, everything seemed fine, although the tiniest cracks were starting to form under the surface. In the future, everything had gone haywire, with the main characters usually having to deal with some shocking murder or bit of violence. Bloodline is doing the same thing, but its future seems a little too predictable. Its ensemble is basically in quiet conflict from the opening episode—it's obvious everything will explode by the end of the show, and the only real question is what side everyone will be on once it does.
This might be easier to take if the show embraced the pulpy promise of the dual timelines and had a little more fun, like the British docuseries Secret History. But again, like Damages (and House of Cards), Bloodline is an oppressively humorless affair. It's hard not to draw a comparison to ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, one of the breakout hits of the season, which used the same flash-forward gimmick. Murder certainly wasn't a flawless experience, but it coasted by on its intense watchability, hurtling through every twist before there was any time to poke holes in the overall story. Bloodline is well-acted and beautifully shot (taking advantage of the Keys' dramatic landscapes), with an occasionally intriguing narrative. But there's still a lot to be said for a serial drama that knows when to have some fun.