Location, they say, is everything. Except they don’t say it often in regard to TV. There’s never been a better time to lose yourself in the richly imagined worlds of the small screen. Yet there are surprisingly few opportunities to be truly transported. Yes, Better Call Saul has Albuquerque’s enormous, meth-blue sky, and True Detective’s flat circle was enlivened by the mossy depth of the Louisiana bayou. Shot on location in Iceland, recent import Fortitude provides a window into a frozen world more fantastic than anything on Game of Thrones. But the imaginations of too many of TV’s best shows are limited by dull soundstage walls or, worse, the nondescript details of a placeholder city: the glassy blandness of Vancouver, the polite monotony of Charlotte. The Americans does its best to make my Brooklyn neighborhood look like the Beltway, and Mad Men has been pretty masterful about hiding the California sun behind a succession of grimy backdrops. Still, I think both the creators and fans of those shows would happily trade up for a crack at the real thing. In the right hands, places can have as much personality as any character.
Of course, achieving this sort of visual specificity is far easier said than done. Just because you type the words “EXT. GRAND CANYON” at the top of a Final Draft document doesn’t necessarily make it so. Setting a TV show on the streets of Manhattan either limits your potential buyers to a cash-rich broadcast network or exiles you to the simulacrum streets of Toronto. And where a series is filmed is only partly a creative decision. Most of it has to do with corporate budgets and the arcane and sketchy world of tax incentives. (This seems like a minor matter, but it has visible effects. In 2014, North Carolina eliminated its film tax credit. In response, Charlotte-based shows Homeland and Banshee relocated to South Africa and Pittsburgh, respectively.) This is simply part of the business — more specifically, the business part of the business and the sort of thing that can send even the hardiest of screenwriters screaming for the (non-Hollywood) hills. Showrunners can control only so much, and we, the audience, probably ought to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Anywheresville, USA, backdrop of shows like Man Seeking Woman (filmed in Toronto, set in … Chicago-ish?) or the close-enough-ness of Veep and House of Cards (both filmed in Baltimore but set in D.C.) don’t take anything away from their relative merits. I’m just saying they don’t add much either.
So, boy is it a pleasure to set sail on the gorgeous, aquamarine seas of Bloodline. All 13 episodes of the Netflix series’ first season will debut on Friday, and all 13 were filmed on location in the Florida Keys. I don’t claim to understand the streaming service’s financials — and, if we’re being honest, does anyone? — but the considerable expense was worth every penny. From its opening frames, Bloodline has the sort of atmosphere you shouldn’t put a price tag on. A warm breeze ripples through every frame, rustling the palm trees and the salt-sticky hair of locals. Cicadas chirp loudly underfoot, unseen lizards skitter through the mangroves. The sun, high in the sky, radiates an impossibly bright whiteness. It’s a natural spotlight that exposes as much as it dazzles. Anything is possible. Everything is visible.
Into this pastel Eden arrives Danny Rayburn, the black-sheep son of an upper-crust family. The Rayburns are Islamorada royalty: Dad Robert (Sam Shepard) looks like an astronaut and plays ukulele like a local. Along with his wife, Sally (Sissy Spacek), Papa Ray owns and operates a resplendent hotel right on the water. It’s a private, expensive sort of place where newlyweds hole up in their rattan-infested rooms, emerging only to snorkle and suck down cocktails at sunset. The three other adult Rayburn children live nearby: John (Kyle Chandler) is the straight-shooting county sheriff; high-achieving Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a real estate attorney; Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), with his frosted tips and swelling beer belly, seems to devote himself primarily to Conch Life. (“I went to Orlando once,” he brays. “It was too cold!”) When the series opens, the Rayburns are kicking out guests and setting up tables for their annual family party. A pier is being named for Robert over the weekend. The sand is warm. The surf is cool. Times are good.
And then Danny shows up, like an unwilling refugee from a harsher, chillier place. His mullet is greasy and faded, his skin sallow. His left arm aches from a mysterious old injury; to combat the pain he pops pills like breath mints. As shot by director Johan Renck, even Danny’s bus ride from the mainland feels freighted: The highway that snakes south of Miami is a narrow strip of asphalt menaced by water on either side; it resembles either a diving board or gangplank. There’s no question that Danny is trouble because he’s played by Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian character-chameleon who has turned the portrayal of lowlifes into something approaching high art in indie flicks like Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly. But in case there was a flicker of doubt about his intentions, Bloodline’s thudding voice-over stamps it out like a boot on a fragile coral bed. “Sometimes you know something’s coming,” Chandler’s familiar drawl rings out in the opening seconds. “A voice in your head is telling you something is gonna go terribly wrong and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
Amen to that, Coach Taylor! Way to describe exactly how I felt when all of that beautiful Florida menace was suddenly polluted by portentous blather! That’s the problem with Bloodline writ large: Every time we try to appreciate the sprawling view, the show insists on handing us a cheap postcard. Each episode is bracketed by Chandler’s thudding narration — “I couldn’t have known then where all this was going to end up”; “We’re not bad people but we did a bad thing.” Mysteries aren’t teased, they’re underlined in bright flamingo pink. As I watched the first three episodes, I was struck by a slow, sinking realization: This otherworldly vacation was actually a Carnival cruise.
At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that Bloodline was created by Todd Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, the showrunning troika known as KZK. They’re the group responsible for Damages, a devilishly tricky FX (and, later, DirecTV) legal drama that, after a while, began to feel like a long con against the audience. Across the show’s five seasons, KZK lured an astonishing array of actors, including Glenn Close, Rose Byrne, Ted Danson, Marcia Gay Harden, and John Goodman, and then rolled them like dice in pursuit of shocking turns and gotcha moments. Damages and Bloodline are both built around jarring temporal shifts; scenes of the happy present are intercut with glimpses of a grim, violent future. Todd Kessler learned his trade at the feet of David Chase on The Sopranos, but in many ways he’s his spiritual opposite. Chase worshiped at the church of character. Kessler would burn anyone and anything at the rickety altar of plot.
On paper, this ought to make KZK a perfect fit for Netflix. After all, Damages was far from a personal favorite but it was inargubaly addictive. There’s something reassuring about committing to a twisty series with the knowledge that everything will be straightened out again in just 13 hours — and that all of those hours are available at once. (Should it be ordered, a sophomore season would have to get busy jamming up the plot a second time.) That is what makes Bloodline’s heavy-handedness all the more frustrating: Chandler’s John Rayburn may not be able to see what’s coming next, but binge-happy Netflix subscribers certainly can. A lighter touch is needed when the space between episodes is seven seconds, not seven days.1
It’s also odd that Bloodline appears to have been written and paced for commercial breaks that don’t exist on streaming services. I suppose old habits die harder than family secrets.
Still, the impressive cast assembled in the Keys does its best to play scenes in the present moment, even as the scripts keep eyeing the future. Butz brings a thirsty humanity to what could be a shallow role. Cardellini, as always, is levelheaded and strong. Jamie McShane and Chloë Sevigny have a dusty charm as a scheming brother and sister from the wrong side of the Intracoastal. And Chandler, in his first series role since Friday Night Lights, once again pulls his remarkable trick of making simple decency thrilling. (Woe unto any actress unlucky enough to be cast as Chandler’s onscreen wife after the force of nature that was Connie Britton on FNL, however. Poor Jacinda Barrett, of Real World: London and Poseidon, doesn’t stand a chance.)
But there’s no escaping that this ought to be Danny’s show, which is as much a celebration of Mendelsohn’s creepy, invasive performance — just wait until you see him spit out a grouper sandwich — as it is an admission of Bloodline’s central flaw: Our focus and sympathies are angled in the wrong direction. There’s a great tradition of Florida noir, from the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald to the baggy, sun-bleached work of Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford. What unites them all is their attention to the fringier characters exiled in paradise, the outcasts drawn to a strange state that leans as far away from the continent as possible. In any one of these stories, the Rayburn family would be the villains: easy-smiling people who have it all, including a raft of dark secrets buried in the shallow sand. After three episodes in their company, the Rayburns’ festering drama (a lot of stuff about wills, curtain arrangements, and adults acting like petulant kids) is more off-putting than engrossing. What’s the point of watching Camelot rot from the inside when there are such compelling barbarians banging at the gates? I’d much rather watch 13 episodes about Danny and his sketchy buddy pulling jobs and running boats — something that looks like Bloodline but plays like something else entirely. On most successful dramas, you barely notice the scenery. On Bloodline, it’s the only reason I’m watching.