Bloodline, the latest scripted drama to take a big bow on Netflix, comes with an immaculate pedigree. A family saga-cum-thriller with an inventively complex and serpentine narrative, the show brings feature film actors Kyle Chandler, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini and Norbert Leo Butz to the Florida Keys in a 13-episode first season that premiered on March 20. Creators Glenn and Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman, the team behind Damages and its successful five-year run, told reporters at Bloodline‘s recent press day in New York they wanted to put a different spin a contemporary family drama. Less whodunit than whydunit, the initial episode spills its violent denouement in a series of flash-forwards that reward the serial viewer. “It was important to us to let an audience know that’s where they were heading within the first hour so that they could watch events unfold,” said Glenn Kessler, who together with his brother Todd, has known co-creator Daniel Zelman for the past 25 years. “It’s really about things we’ve been discussing our entire lives.” Like Damages, the show is produced by Sony Pictures Television and the trio’s KZK Productions.
Spacek and Shepard play heads of the multigenerational Rayburn clan who run an inn on an idyllic yet isolated speck of beach and swamp midway down the Keys. The show’s first episode is framed by the sudden return of the troubled oldest son Danny, played by Mendelsohn. Chandler — back on television for the first time since the wildly popular Friday Night Lights — is his seemingly upstanding brother whose voiceover may or may not reveal otherwise. Before long, past vulnerabilities, losses and grudges begin to seep through the cracks of age-old familial roles, tipping Bloodline into new and compelling territory.
Inspired by films like Crimes and Misdemeanors—and its original inspiration, Crime and Punishment, where the murder happens in the first 100 pages, the creators said they were most interested in exploring how past events shadow family relationships indefinitely and are infinitely reinterpreted through different character’s eyes.
“Looking at those examples, we were confident that you could structure an entire first season of a television series around certain major events and still have future seasons where those same characters are vibrant and there’s an enormous amount of story yet to tell,” Todd Kessler added.
The structure lent itself well to Netflix’s all-at-once distribution, but also let them work more on establishing character without unnecessary episode breaks, said Glenn Kessler. “It allowed us to approach the whole season as one long movie. And because it’s a thriller, the first few episodes are kind of that opening of a thriller.” Within that extended narrative, he said, their aim is to show the audience different sides of the same people, from the roles they continue to play within their families to what they only reveal to others on the outside.
Bloodline was shot by Darren Lew and Jaime Reynoso in 4K in the causeway-tethered town of Islamorada and the wide, richly hued and underwater shots help establish the show’s other major character, the location itself. “The reason we chose the Keys is because it’s not on television,” said Zelman. “We wanted a visual landscape that felt unique to this show,” and the Rayburn family, whose “job is to welcome people to paradise, have their own dark current running beneath them. The Keys are just so fascinating in that way because it’s a strange place with a strange history. It’s all in keeping with that gothic thriller tradition of Cape Fear and Body Heat.”
The Kesslers and Zelman sold a full season of their show to Netflix before the cast was attached, but had no trouble drawing top talent to the table. “When he pitched it to me, Glenn said its was going to be very cinematic; he made it sound so exciting,” said Spacek, the Rayburn matriarch. “I’ve been doing film my entire career and I didn’t want to miss the boat. And the character was interesting to me because it gave me an opportunity to explore my sixth decade of life. I’d never worked on a television show where you’re in at the beginning and you’re a part of creating the character as you go. In film, we know the beginning, middle and end before you start. That was very intriguing to me, and also a little scary!”
Mendelsohn, the lone Australian actor in the cast who delivers a dead-on American accent, also spent more than a few scenes in the ocean, much to his horror. “I’m not your typical Australian,” he said. “I’m bad at swimming, so those scenes were hard for me,” especially with all the “aquatic beasts” about. “In Australia, there are some people that are really great with sharks. I’m not one of those people.”
Editor’s Note: Bloodline has been nominated for Emmy awards for outstanding lead actor in a drama series, and outstanding supporting actor in a drama series.