Clicking and Streaming: Netflix Original Series 'Bloodline' brings Faulknerian modernism to television

City Paper

So many people called "The Wire" Dickensian that David Simon incorporated a joke about it into the show’s final season. And, although Simon’s show could equally well be termed Balzacian, Zolaesque, or even Goncourtian, the point holds: "The Wire" covers a vast swath of the world’s social strata and exposes many of its ills through well-constructed drama.

In fact, much of the great television of the this so-called "golden age" has been rooted in 19th-century naturalism (or the mid-20th-century noir or sci-fi that tweaked its formula). Recently however, we’ve taken the turn into modernism, specifically that noirish gothic family drama modernism of Faulkner. First there was "True Detective," which used a Faulknerian temporal structure to show not only that "the past is not past," but that in fact "time is a flat circle." But, in the end, that show was more Dostoevskian than it was Faulknerian, with its mystical cop structure and big theological buddy-flickness.

"Bloodline," on the other hand, is the first truly Faulknerian television show, which focuses on the way a family can never escape either its past or its place. The place is a resort hotel in the spectacularly beautiful Florida Keys and the family is the Rayburns, who have owned it for 45 years when the show begins. The father (Sam Shepard) and the mother (Sissy Spacek) built the place up out of nothing and are about to be honored by the town. They have three children who live in town—one is a cop ("Friday Night Lights'" Kyle Chandler), another (Norbert Leo Butz) runs a marina, and a third (Linda Cardellini from "Freaks and Geeks") is the family’s lawyer.

The show begins as the fourth and oldest child Danny (the horrifyingly charming Ben Mendelsohn) returns to town after disappointing his parents and siblings for many years. There’s another child, alluded to early on, and the plot swirls around the repercussions of what happened to her—and Danny—decades earlier. The show starts slow but builds into a sound and a fury that ends up signifying quite a lot, as it embraces a dirty-South lyricism of such Faulkner acolytes as Larry Brown (his novel "Father and Son" particularly comes to mind). When the crime element of the plot begins to pick up speed and endows Danny with a naturalistically Luciferian quality as the other three siblings come together to figure out how to deal with his presence—and their own pasts.

Netflix rolled out this show—with its impeccable casting—without much fanfare, though it is a far better show than the more widely touted "House of Cards." But the lack of hoopla also suits the show. It is a slow burn that is allowed to pick its own pace and slowly seduces the audience into its deceptive and beautiful rhythm.

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