How Netflix's Bloodline Gets Florida Right
Mild spoilers follow for the first season of Bloodline.
Netflix's Bloodline initially looked like a show that took itself too seriously, with ominous voiceover from Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) about good people doing a bad thing. It's genuinely confusing for the first several chapters as it slowly digs up all the skeletons in the damp, flooded closets of the Florida Keys' prominent Rayburn family. And yet I watched every single episode over the span of five days, sometimes three chapters in a row.
The cast does indeed elevate the sometimes-dreary material, but it was the setting that really impelled me to soldier on. I grew up in Central Florida, a few hundred miles away from the Florida Keys and about 60 miles from the coast. Every summer we would decamp for a week to one small island or another off the Gulf Coast. You could walk to the Dairy Queen (the lone chain allowed, because who among us can resist the power of the Blizzard?), or bike around the 10-mile island loop. It's that small-town feel, the isolation that particular geography breeds—even if you are connected to the outside world by a bridge—that Bloodline balances so beautifully: As a visitor, it's a nice break from suburban sprawl; as a resident, it can be suffocating.
All of Florida is humid on a level that would frizz even the most shellacked coiffure, but on the coasts there are days when you seem to be wading through the air, a feeling Bloodline manages to convey through the slight sheen of sweat that constantly covers everyone. A storm thunders through every afternoon without fail. The clouds don't roll in so much as march, inevitably, across the water. They rage for half an hour and then continue on or dissipate.
In flashforwards throughout the season, second-eldest Rayburn brother John (Chandler) struggles to bring a body through just such an afternoon shower, in the middle of a muddy, swampy mess. Wading through troubled waters is part of life in South Florida, though. Even up in the relatively drier confines of Central Florida, a rite of passage for many an elementary school kid in my hometown is the Mud Walk, which is exactly what it sounds like: A mile-long trek along a trail flooded with waist-high mud from the winter rains. (N.B.: I was about 8 when I did this, and an undersized child at that, so it might only be ankle-deep for most people.) Chandler is an ace actor, so it's not a stretch for anyone to feel his horror and frustration and utter exhaustion in these scenes. But each time John appeared dragging that corpse through mangroves and cypress, the sight kept pulling me back to those elementary school days I thought I'd forgotten. (This is doubly weird, because I was definitely not dragging a dead body with me.)
And then there's the wardrobe, tailored to the exact kind of Florida each character embodies: Chloë Sevigny's downtrodden nurse Chelsea O'Bannon mostly wanders around in tank tops thrown over a bikini. Chandler's responsible detective John is almost always in chinos and a button-down and a tie, obviously suffering, like so many sweatsoaked fathers of Florida kids, but acquiescing to the white collar dress code created elsewhere, probably New Jersey or something. Norbert Leo Butz's hothead youngest Rayburn brother Kevin is essentially a boat bum, seldom seen in anything but cargo shorts and O'Neill or Quicksilver branded tees. The only time anyone (except John) isn't wearing sandals is during a funeral or a pier dedication. Walk into any South Florida establishment, and this is exactly the sartorial assortment you will see.
Despite the show being half shot at night, it's the daytime scenes that shine (sorry). Everything looks slightly bleached, the houses are appropriately dim, and you feel bad for anyone who isn't wearing shades.
The only thing really missing from Bloodline is the wildlife, which is abundant in reality but, save for a swatted mosquito or two, never really factors into the show: Key deer, cottonmouths, coral snakes, Key Largo woodrats, etc. Maybe ditch the voiceover and stick a few gators into the just-announced Season 2.