For anyone still unsure that Netflix has created the model for the future of TV, the arrival and quick renewal of freshman drama Bloodline is the best argument yet in favor of the online streaming giant. Netflix’s success also sits in contrast, at least for now, to some problems faced by AMC and HBO, who not very long ago were the giants of television. That’s right. I used the past tense and I mean it.
For starters, Bloodline features the best cast to be assembled for a series in a long time; a cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard and Ben Mendelsohn. While star power does not always equal quality, acclaim and success, that’s just what Bloodline has found. It’s 75% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes is just one example of the critical acclaim the series has already achieved. This is the third time a successful Netflix series has assembled a cast of well-known and award winning actors and actresses to great success. The first of course is House of Cards, led by Kevin Spacey. I will call Orange is the New Black an example of this as well, though to a lesser extent, because it did manage to nab Jason Biggs and Laura Prepon. In terms of big names, however, Bloodline has the longest list yet. When was the last time an HBO or AMC series featured that much well known talent? The Newsroom had Jeff Daniels. Breaking Bad had Bryan Cranston, but he was not known for drama before 2008. The cast of Mad Men featured a cast mostly unknown by most viewers when it premiered in the summer of 2007. These shows on HBO and AMC created some big names. That is certainly something to brag about. But Netflix appears to be stealing veteran talent away from premium channels and basic cable. Notably, however, the most talked about performance on the show is given by Ben Medelsohn, an actor mostly unfamiliar to viewers aside from his small role as John Dagget in The Dark Knight Rises. In a series full of gray characters, his portrayal is the richest. So brilliant is he as the eldest son Danny that the performance has inspired countless articles such as this one, which credits Mendelsohn as the show’s biggest asset. Mendelsohn is the soon to be iconic character at the center of Bloodline in the same way Jon Hamm became the central figure in Mad Men. Its doubtful Danny Rayburn will be Mendelsohn’s best known role for long. Even before Bloodline premiered he had been cast in the upcoming stand-alone Star Wars film titled Rogue One. But when the series was renewed, bloggers commenting on the news mainly wanted to know if Mendelsohn would be back too.
The strength of the casting for Netflix dramas is going to exacerbate the already difficult climate that traditional (by which I mean scheduled) programming faces. Basic cable is still dependent on commercials that aggravate viewers. Premium channels and basic cable cost more than a Netflix subscription and both also air one episode at a time. Netflix seems to be winning on every front. It also helps that Bloodline is just as intriguing as Breaking Bad or The Wire, even if it’s concept is not quite as original or fresh.
A dramatic thriller, Bloodline focuses on the Rayburns, a family whose successful beachside hotel business has provided financial stability and status in the community but not familial harmony. Most of the first episode only hints at the deeper issues and troubled past of the Rayburns. Those hints begin to drop when eldest sibling Danny returns home with a desire to take hold of his share of the family business. Making things more uncomfortable, family patriarch Robert (Shepard) leaves it to the other three siblings to decide if Danny deserves another chance. The present drama unfolds with occasional cuts to a future tragedy. Writers Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler & Daniel Zelman (the minds behind Damages) masterfully construct these scenes so that when the final outcome of this event is revealed, it is unbelievable in the best way possible. It makes you want to stick with the Rayburns and find out how this tragedy is possible, even given their obvious dysfunction. The rest of season one builds to this event.
The pace is slow, at times even more so than House of Cards, and there is very little humor. What is present is acting of the highest degree. As the season progresses, the intensity rises as past tragedies are revealed and external problems (drugs, human smuggling) creep inward. The show has a distinctly coastal feel in terms of the issues it tackles. The emotional violence resonating within the Rayburns permeates the otherwise lush and beautiful setting. Because of the overall mood, I can recall only one shot, less than ten seconds, where I actually thought this setting looked appealing. It was only when I saw some of the stills included in articles about the show that I realized how beautiful the location is. The tone of this show is brooding and dark. It puts the viewer in a mood that would be almost unbearable without some beautiful imagery to dilute the darkness. Even with such imagery included, this is a show to appreciate for how it washes everyone and everything in a thick, heavy mood. The Rayburns do not get to enjoy the tropical setting. It is full of angst, pain, regret and fear for them. Consequently, viewers will have little time to enjoy the scenery either.
The flashbacks and flash forwards are occasionally dragged out for too long. And the season one finale, which delivers everything that is promised in Part 1, leaves me uncertain about where the show can go from here. I’m not fully convinced the twist the writers tease out for the second season has as much potential. But with acting and mise-en-scene this strong, I’m eager to give it a try. And why wouldn’t I? Aside from the strength of season one, I do not have to commit to this the way I would commit to a show on AMC or HBO. I don’t have to set a DVR or reserve time to watch it live. Nor do I have to wait several weeks to get to the end (or at least a big moment) in the story.
HBO and AMC have a lot of work cut out for them. Game of Thrones is great but seeing it is much more difficult by comparison to Netflix. It’s also a lot more expensive. There are also some signs that AMC may be leaving behind its first great era. Once Mad Men signs off next month, its most buzz worthy shows will be a spin-off of Breaking Bad and the aging thriller The Walking Dead. HBO isn’t much better. Aside from not attracting the biggest names, at least for series (they have a better record with movies and miniseries), most of their ratings and blogs buzz comes from Game of Thrones. While Bloodline may not have yet achieved the level of hype as House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, its success thus far is further proof that Netflix is capable of a strong lineup. House of Cards got everyone’s attention. Two years later, Bloodline is a very worthy attempt to build on that notoriety. I’m looking forward to seeing what Netflix comes up with next, as well as season two of Bloodline.
It’s probably safe to say the powers that be in basic or premium cable aren’t excited about either one.
– Nathan Blake