Between their FX/DirecTV legal drama “Damages” and their new Netflix drama “Bloodline,” producers Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler have established certain creative trademarks.
First, they fill their ensembles with great actors, luring them in with juicy roles that let them showcase a side of themselves they haven't in a long time, if ever. With “Damages,” that approach won Glenn Close a couple of Emmys, and allowed other actors like Ted Danson and Martin Short to completely reinvent how viewers saw them. With “Bloodline,” it's landed the creators a cast that includes an Emmy winner (Kyle Chandler), an Oscar winner (Sissy Spacek), a Tony winner (Norbert Leo Butz) and a Pulitzer Prize winner (Sam Shepard), plus other impressive actors like Linda Cardellini, Ben Mendelsohn and Chloe Sevigny.
Second, they make sure the locales of their shows look gorgeous and distinct. For “Damages,” that was the gleaming world of New York corporate law and the social avenues it opened for people like Close's Patty Hewes. For “Bloodline,” it's the hazy sun and sand of the Floriday Keys, where Shepard and Spacek's characters own a hotel on the beach.
Third, they know how to bait a narrative hook, strategically deploying flash-forwards to give the narrative in the present an extra charge. Early in “Damages,” the flash-forwards let us know that life was going to take a very bad shift for Rose Byrne's wide-eyed Ellen. In “Bloodline,” they suggest that Shepard and Spacek's kids are about to turn on each other in a potentially very violent way.
I can't take issue with the first two trademarks. These guys hire thoroughbred actors and give them plenty of room to run, and they hire terrific directors (starting in the premiere with Swedish director Johan Renck, a veteran of “Breaking Bad” and “Vikings”) to make their shows absorbing to look at.
It's the shenanigans with the timeline – and the way they tend to illustrate how ultimately hollow the characters are, even with these superb actors playing them – that drove me from “Damages” after a season-plus, and that won't have me racing to finish the rest of the first “Bloodline” season anytime soon.
The set-up: prodigal son Danny (Mendelsohn) returns for the big party celebrating the family hotel's 45th anniversary, complete with a local pier being renamed in honor of his parents. Leathery, worn and flat broke (he comes into town by bus), he's a reminder of painful family troubles past, and an unsettling harbinger of what's to come for siblings John (Chandler), Kevin (Butz) and Meg (Cardellini).
The early episodes (Netflix made the first three available to critics; the full season debuts on Friday) are a slow simmer full of characters delivering ominous side-eye whenever Danny enters a room, but things going relatively smoothly. John's the local sheriff, and he gets involved in a murder investigation, but it takes place way in the background at the start.
But the creators want you to know all of this is leading somewhere, which they do with a pair of storytelling devices: the flash-forwards, here involving nasty doings in the middle of a hurricane; and voiceover narration by John, designed to both remind us of the defining traits of each character and warn us that the road ahead is full of danger.
“Sometimes, you know something's coming,” he declares in the series' opening moments. “You feel it in the air, in your gut, and you don't sleep at night. The voice in your head's telling you that something is going to go terribly wrong, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. That's how I felt when my brother came home.”
All of this is window dressing to hide a fairly picked-over inventory inside. Each character is a stock type – John the good son who resents never getting to be bad like Danny, Kevin the hothead (“My brother Kevin is the hothead of the family,” John reminds us at the start of episode 2, even though that's clear in the premiere and the Netflix model means viewers are likely to watch several episodes in a row), Meg the people pleaser – who fortunately is played by a wonderful actor. The breakout of the group is Australian import Mendelsohn, who underplays all of Danny's curdled resentment of his family, trusting that his wiry physical presence and the way his co-stars react to him will be enough to make clear how much trouble is likely to follow in his wake. On these shores, he's the least well-known member of the ensemble, yet he carries every scene he's in, regardless of which actor he shares it with, and he's as compelling as the creators need him to be, given how much of the show involves other characters reacting to and talking about Danny.
The flashforwards and narration, designed to pull viewers through the quiet expository passages at the start, had the opposite effect on me. They reminded me of how much pleasure “Damages” took in pulling the rug out from under the audience whenever possible, and how the constant surprises and reversals quickly grew tired (when everything is shocking, nothing is), while turning the core characters into puppets who danced at the whims of the story, rather than people with understandable and consistent motivation.
We'll see if they play those games to this extent with “Bloodline” – Todd Kessler has suggested to at least one reporter that the flash-forwards won't be a series-long (or even season-long) device – but for now, the new show seems more style over substance, parking a lot of actors I like in an attractive location and not giving most of them material that's up to their talents.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org