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Netflix’s Bloodline ends in season 3 as it lived — slow-moving and a little boring

The series never figured out how to turn great acting into riveting TV.

Kyle Chandler is, as always, very good in Bloodline.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Bloodline, the slowest burn on Netflix — a streaming network known for slow burns — has ended its run after three seasons, when its creators originally planned to end it after five or six. (Vulture reported that the show’s per-episode budget was in the $7 million range, so maybe it was just too expensive for Netflix.)

Speaking with Variety about this unexpected final season, co-creator Todd Kessler said:

When we sold it to Netflix, that was the idea, that it would run in success for five or six seasons. And when we got the call, that they wanted us to end the Rayburns’ story after three seasons, it just meant looking at our notes for what we had planned for seasons four and five and six, and figuring out what we could pull and combine in order to make the most entertaining and emotionally satisfying and fulfilling story that we could.

When I read that the creators had attempted to somehow condense much of what they had planned for four seasons of television (seasons three through six) into 10 episodes of TV, I nearly did a double take. And now, having watched all 10 hours of season three, I find it a bit baffling that this is what they came up with, because it might be the slowest season of Bloodline yet. (Astonishingly, that’s in spite of the fact that — mild spoiler alert — season three features some fun shenanigans with an alternate timeline.)

But the more I think about what ultimately didn’t work for me about Bloodline — while hooking many, many other fans — the more I realize it comes down to one thing: whether good acting is enough.

Bloodline always felt like a proof of concept for a better show starring the exact same cast

The one thing almost everyone can say about Bloodline, love it or hate it, is that it abounded with great performances. From Kyle Chandler in the lead role of John Rayburn, the tortured good son of the Rayburn clan who slowly found himself slipping into the moral muck, to Sissy Spacek as his mom, who basically got nothing to do in the first two seasons but has some very good scenes in season three, every single actor in the series was perfectly cast.

That extends to the series’ breakout star, Ben Mendelsohn, whose shadow loomed so large over Bloodline that he returned for season two, even though his character, Danny, was killed off at the end of season one. The scenes between Chandler and Mendelsohn were hypnotic to watch, even though they existed in a “good brother/bad brother, and which one is which?” dynamic as old as the Bible.

But Bloodline’s third season mostly eschews Mendelsohn, whose career has taken off in the wake of the series’ debut. (He won an Emmy for season two, even though he barely appeared in it compared to season one.) Instead, the story is primarily about the relationship between John and his younger brother, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), which can’t help but feel a little like a dull retread. Kevin’s personality increasingly seems to be “the brother who can’t get it right” — but that was already sort of Danny’s personality. Butz is great, but the show’s writers have nothing new to add to this dynamic.

Meg (Linda Cardellini) mostly leaves the series behind.

This might be okay if more of Bloodline’s core characters were around for season three, but Mendelsohn is off doing other things, and the show also largely writes out Linda Cardellini as Rayburn sister Meg (though she at least gets a standout episode around midseason). Without them, the series is essentially just a legal drama about whether John and Kevin can escape prosecution for the crimes they’ve committed in the wake of Danny’s return (which may feel comfortable to the Bloodline creative team, who previously made the FX and DirecTV lawyer drama Damages).

That means the series’ third lead, after Chandler and Butz, is probably the defense attorney for Danny’s old friend Eric O’Bannon, on whom at least one murder has been pinned. But she’s such a new character I couldn’t tell you her name without looking it up. She’s well-performed, but she’s not a character. She’s a plot obstacle for the Rayburns.

So, in a way, that’s the problem with Bloodline: The series always felt like a sort of blueprint for a great TV show, with many of the key elements in place, from great acting to a compelling setting in the Florida Keys. But when it came time to build the actual show, all the production team delivered was a bunch of sketches of what might have been, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps.

If you enjoy watching great acting for its own sake — as many people do — you probably enjoyed Bloodline just fine. Even though the show’s characters were ultimately bogged down in very basic tropes, the performers brought so much to their thin roles that you probably didn’t mind. Just to watch Chandler sink his teeth into John’s slow spiral (especially in season two) was sometimes enough to carry a whole episode or string of episodes.

But as much as I love great acting, I’m usually looking for TV shows to have something on their minds beyond, “Sometimes, people will sacrifice anything for their families.” (You don’t say!) Bloodline wanted to have the weight of a great tragedy, but it mostly felt like a pencil sketch version of other, better stories. It’s too bad, because those performances really were something.

Bloodline is streaming in its entirety on Netflix.