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Netflix's Bloodline is a Slow Burn

Netflix has been on a bit of run lately.

The streaming service dipped its toe and made some noise in the last few years with original programming hits like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” that made clear Netflix was another viable outlet for viewers.

They have stepped up their game in 2015 though as it seems every weekend over the last month or so has been punctuated by another series dropping online.

The third season of “House of Cards” dominated pop culture conversation when it premiered in late February and then a few weeks later, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a “30-Rock”-esque sitcom created by Tina Fey and starring Ellie Kemper was eagerly binged. And wait just a few more weeks and the eagerly awaited Marvel series “Daredevil” will show up in April.

In between though, Netflix has just released yet another new series, the family potboiler drama/mystery “Bloodline” and if anyone needs an indication of Netflix’s pedigree as an original programming player, just take a look at the cast and creators of this series.

Heading the cast is Coach Eric Taylor himself from “Friday Night Lights”, Kyle Chandler, and he’s joined by other recognizable names like Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, and Linda Cardellini

In addition, the series itself is helmed by the triumvirate of Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, best know for overseeing the long-running FX legal drama “Damages”, starring Glenn Close and Rose Byrne.

I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of “Damages” but that’s enough to realize it’s a show that likes to keep the audience guessing with a flurry of twists, and through the first half of season one, “Bloodline” seems to follow a similar narrative path.

With a new surprising development at the conclusion of seemingly every episode, this series is perfect for Netflix because it’s designed to make the audience immediately hit the “play next episode” button after each hour.

Information is parsed out slowly on “Bloodline.” Even after the first hour, the storyline is only slightly clearer than what can be gleaned from the show’s trailer.

Set in the Florida Keys, “Bloodline” tells the story of the Rayburn family, a well-off clan consisting of an older couple (Spacek and Shepherd) who own a popular beachfront resort and their four children. Chandler, Cardellini and Norbert Leo Butz play the three younger children who also live in the Keys, while the oldest, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), is the black sheep prodigal son and his return for a weekend anniversary celebration sets off proclamations of doom from Chandler’s John (who doubles as the show’s heavy-handed narrator) and sets the show’s storylines in motion.

Similar to “Damages” the pilot is also interspersed with vague flash forwards showing there are “very bad things” ahead and a surprising development at the close of the episode is punctuated by Chandler: “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing.”

More details about what’s to come are doled out slowly, while there are also flashbacks detailing the family’s rocky history and begin to explain why everybody on the show is wound so tight despite the fact they all live in paradise.

Above all else, the performances on “Bloodline” are universally strong, as you would expect from this cast. Much of the promotion seems to have been focused on Chandler and he’s pretty much incapable of not giving a commanding performance, but the key role and performance is from Mendelsohn, a virtual unknown, as Danny. As more details are revealed as to how Danny became such an outcast within his own family, Mendelsohn does a good job of making his character seem both sympathetic and menacing.

Visually the show is one of the best looking out there. Filmed on location in the Florida Keys, “Bloodline” immediately establishes a sense of place and atmosphere where this tropical haven also can house a lot of secrets.

There is a lot of table-setting through the first three episodes, but things pick up steam late in the fourth episode and particularly in the fifth, the best one so far (I’ve watched seven). As more information is doled out about the past, deliberately oblique events from the early episodes become clearer. The show also thankfully tones down Chandler’s narration and simply lets the story tell itself.

While “Bloodline” definitely improves as it goes along, it’s still hampered by bland characterization in spots. Danny is obviously a very well-drawn character and to a lesser degree Chandler’s John as well, but Cardellini’s Meg and Butz’s Kevin are still saddled with uninteresting storylines and when they are the focus it feels like the show screeches to a halt. Also Sissy Spacek as the family matriarch Sally has been pretty much wasted outside of a great monologue in the fifth episode.

Through three episodes I’d have said “Bloodline” might be a slog to get through the whole season, but it’s done a good job in subsequent episodes to make me very eager to see what happens by the end of episode 13.
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