Bloodline suggests Cat on a Hot Tin Roof if it were stretched out and updated for broadcast as a prestige cable TV series. As in the play, the series is obsessively concerned with the murky side effects of the sins wrought by a prosperous patriarch, in this case Robert Rayburn (Sam Shepard), a hotel owner in the Florida Keys with a dysfunctional tight-knit clan who’re metaphorically poisoned by something that’s merely suggested by the three episodes offered to press in advance. There are references to abuse and (in passages reminiscent of Shepard’s own play, Buried Child) hints of the existence of someone who may have died prematurely years ago, and there are also pointed allusions to Robert’s unethical influence over an environmental compliance board. Robert’s presence haunts the series in a rueful, masculine fashion that exists effortlessly within Shepard’s wheelhouse as resident, guest-starring legend. Robert’s wife, Sally (Sissy Spacek), appears to serve as the deceptively kind face of his potentially mercenary machinations, though that warmth may not be a façade. It’s the Rayburn children, however, who seem to command the narrative’s center ring.
Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest son who’s oft gone and prone to trouble with the law, appears to telegraph the demons of the Rayburn crew most openly and problematically. Much of the show’s tension springs from trying to discern whether he’s an agent of destruction or a comparative, legitimately wounded innocent looking to defend his own piece of the family turf. In a memorably revealing scene, he’s seen drinking and eating at a beach-side dive after blowing back into town, nonchalantly telling the bartender that the grouper’s old and the coleslaw soggy, so he’s not going to pay for it. It’s one of those odd little scenes that draws the audience in on a character’s wavelength, and Danny quickly positions himself as the focal point of our sympathies and fascination, nearly to the point of liability. Bloodline is theoretically an ensemble, full of gifted actors, but Mendelsohn walks away with it, largely because of his uniquely poignant sleaze-ball charisma (he has a particular gift for passive-aggressive insinuation), though he’s also unwisely given all the good, character-establishing material, which leaves dramatic blank spots when he’s off screen.
The other Rayburn children are often reduced to sounding melodramatic generalities needed for setting the potentially elaborate, chronologically splintered plot in motion. John (Kyle Chandler) is that Chandler specialty: a decent, blandish Dudley Do-Right law enforcer with some resentment and anger issues that the actor wisely foregrounds for the sake of nuance. John, the family guardian to Danny’s black sheep, is forever instructing everyone about what Dad wants while occasionally tending to his own personal politics. Yet he’s really only interesting when he’s playing off Danny, as the two share an already greatly foreshadowed history that will presumably come into explicit play by season’s end. Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is a nonentity, a party-animal blowhard whose main purpose is as a device for engendering even more interest in Danny. And Meg (Linda Cardellini), the family attorney as well as Robert and Sally’s lone daughter, is initially relegated to the sidelines as an over-achiever with an adulterous secret, though she grows more interesting as her arc gradually comes to intersect with, yes, Danny’s.
Bloodline is mechanically compelling, yet overburdened with perfunctory plotting. Besides Danny’s emergence as a figure of controversy, and the many portentous suggestions of skeletons that anxiously await escape from long-obscured closets, there’s also a case of a dead teen that John’s investigating, as well as a woman who might be a ghost or (more likely) a drug-addled hallucination of Danny’s. Plot threads pile up on one another at the expense of personality and texture. With the exception of the sounds of summer bugs chirping, the Florida Keys disappointingly fail to assert themselves as major influences on the show’s atmosphere. They’re flatly rendered via unimaginative background shots and exist apart from the characters’ passions and exertions, especially when compared to something like the sexy, energetically trashy late-’90s thriller Wild Things. The problem with this promising but often forgettable mystery is ultimately simple: One never really feels the idiosyncratic heat. These pulp shenanigans fail to cohere as a distinctly unified vision.