Some people regard Netflix as a cultural juggernaut that is changing the way we watch television for ever. I’m not convinced. I renewed my lapsed subscription so I could watch the third season of House of Cards but once that (huge disappointment) was down the hatch, I swiftly set about cancelling it again: I simply couldn’t find any other drama on its virtual shelves that I wanted to see badly enough. Meanwhile, in the hoary land of terrestrial television, the nation was happily counting the days until it could once again commune with Ross and Demelza on some sun-drenched Cornish clifftop. Hmm. I wonder if the success of Poldark – the greasy antimacassar on the soggy old armchair that is BBC1 – has the people at Netflix, Amazon and the rest scratching their heads wonderingly. I rather imagine that it does.
When I cancelled my sub, Netflix somewhat desperately informed me that I had three weeks in which to gorge on its wares and, because I’m genetically programmed to despise waste of any kind, I used the time to watch the moderately hyped Bloodline, another of its commissions. Of this, I was quite hopeful. It came courtesy of the people who made the loopy but addictive Damages and its starry cast (Chloë Sevigny has a fairly minor part) includes Sissy Spacek, whose delicate, patrician face is not on our screens half as often as it should be. Even better, it seemed to be built like a big American novel. At its heart is a sack-of-stoats family straight out of Jonathan Franzen: wealthy, smart, competitive (especially in the matter of fishing) and dysfunctional. I pictured myself settling right into it, like some medieval pope on a bed of furs and velvet.
In the end, though, any languor was born of tedium rather than indulgence. What a disappointment. I can’t remember ever having seen a series in which impending disaster is foreshadowed as frequently, as explicitly and with such calamitous consequences for its sense of suspense as in Bloodline. By the end of episode one, I knew who was going to die and how and at whose hand. By the end of episode two, I had several clues as to his motives. By the end of episode three . . . Ah. I didn’t quite get to the end of episode three. By then, I was unable to shake my growing sense that Netflix thinks of its audience in much the same way as small children think of ducks: keep the bread coming and fast, or they’ll soon waddle away.
Bloodline is set in the Florida Keys, where Robert Rayburn (Sam Shepard) and his wife, Sally (Spacek), run a picture-book beachside hotel. The couple are to be honoured for their contribution to Keys life – a pier will be named after them – so they throw a party. Back home for the celebrations are their four adult children: Meg (Linda Cardellini), a girlish lawyer; John (Kyle Chandler), who works as the county sheriff and sees himself as the family peacemaker; Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), who has a fiery temper and a passion for the sea; and Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the black sheep who is always on the scrounge. It should be a great set-up. First, you watch the mean, duplicitous Danny’s effect on the rest of the clan. Then, as their frailties are revealed, you begin to wonder if they didn’t somehow create him. Who’s the victim here? The sacred Rayburns, or poor, pockmarked Danny?
But it doesn’t come off. Only Danny is properly fleshed out; his siblings are like cardboard cut-outs, stooges in the writers’ grand scheme. As I watched, I kept thinking of The Legacy, the Danish series that kept me in its grasp for many weeks without any recourse to trumpeted doom. It was on similar territory to Bloodline but the motivations of its characters and their suppressed and calcified emotions were enough, gripping you more keenly than any gator attack or body floating among the mangroves. What I’m trying to say is that Bloodline fails because it is built for binge-viewing, rather than in spite of it. Unfortunately for Netflix, even ducks feel full sometimes. Chuck a whole loaf at them and it’ll still be there the next morning, soggy and unloved.