If you’re like me, one of the reasons you’re pumped about this show is that Kyle Chandler is coming back to dramatic television — so what if he’s just playing a doughier Coach Taylor, sans headset? Great, we’ll take him! Another reason is this show comes from the same people — Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman — who created Damages, and that was a show you maybe really enjoyed for a couple seasons. Also good news, the cast is rounded out with star-studded talent: Sissy Spacek, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Shepard, and Chloë Sevigny, to name a few. What are we waiting for? Let’s meet the Rayburns!
As the camera pans over the Florida Keys, a dour Chandler kicks off the series with a pessimistic monologue, wasting no time telling us terrible things are going to happen in a beautiful place to beautiful people. In a handful of quick but telling shots, we’re introduced to: John (Chandler), the sheriff of the town and the second-oldest Rayburn son, who can drive a truck with one hand like no one’s business; then there’s the bus-riding Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s mentally, emotionally, and physically disheveled, the black sheep of the family (more on this later); Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), a party animal who almost always looks like a half-naked hoarder; Meg (Linda Cardellini, who looks like she hasn’t aged a day since Freaks and Geeks, which is more unsettling than cool), the baby sister; the mom, Sally (Sissy Spacek), who is a peach, as well as the hostess with the mostest; and, of course, Robert (played with taciturn grace by legend Shepard), the kayaking patriarch of this seemingly picture-perfect family. Terrible things are going to happen because Danny’s on his way home from the Miami area for the 45th anniversary of his parents’ waterfront hotel, but he’s the kind of guy who only comes home when he needs something — and trouble seems to stalk him wherever he goes.
As well as introducing our cast of characters, the first ten or so minutes here also foreshadow this show’s appearance-versus-reality theme, on steroids. Almost immediately — and if you’ve been keeping up with the show’s marketing and advertising campaign — we know that everybody in this family has dark secrets. What are those secrets? We really only see glimmers, which is why I liked the pilot so much; it does its job in forcing me to stick around for at least one more installment, a testament to the writers, considering these eps are nearly a true 60 minutes with no breaks. Back to the show: It’s evident John has trouble doling out the truth and repairing unfixable things, Danny is running from something, Kevin may or may not actually be in a healthy relationship with the woman he’s calling his wife, and no, Meg is definitely not monogamous, but in a broader sense, she’s also not the innocent daughter she’s pretending to be. All of this to say the Rayburns, as upstanding as they’ve all tried to be, are one scandal away from collectively becoming ethically bankrupt. The Rayburn parents are supposed to get a pier dedicated to them for their service to the area, but they’re actually going to get a totally dysfunctional weekend instead.
I’m interested to learn more about who Danny’s ghost-lady on the bus is, because here are my sarcastic snap judgments of Danny: Generally, he loves people, he loves talking to people, he loves meeting new people. How did he get this way? Something bad has already happened to him, and it likely involved her. While people are arriving at the party, Danny’s prematurely hopping off his bus to eat old fish for free and to go back to Miami. We see in his interaction with the waitress that he’s a no-bullshit, no-filter guy who doesn’t care what people think about him — especially his family — and then, when he links up with his pal Eric (Jamie McShane), he decides it’s a good idea to smoke weed on a boat while Eric, sketchiest guy in the Keys whose parole officer never knows what he’s doing, tries to convince Danny to do more illegal things (i.e., participate in “the easiest score you’ll ever make”).
If you’re John waiting at the bus stop for Danny, you’re livid you’re missing the family’s traditional rope pull because that’s what life in the Keys is all about. If you’re John, you’re even more pissed when Danny inexplicably shows up to the party and is like, What are you waiting for, let’s pull this rope! Cue first cryptic flash-forward, in which John and Danny, who may or may not be wearing pajamas, are making their way through mud. Danny is unconscious, not having a good time. Again, this show lets us know something terrible is about to happen.
Sally is thrilled everybody is at her party, but, things go wrong quickly. Danny invites a random PYT named Cheryl to the party, and Kevin hates this idea. This first family discussion scene was fantastic. In your head you’re yelling, KEVIN, DON’T MAKE A SCENE. PLEASE. But he has his cool-guy sunglasses on, so you know he’s going to make a scene, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable. The dialogue is great, the acting is great, the shots and cuts are great — the only problem is that none of these people look like they could be related, and the ages don’t really make sense. But, hey, Hollywood. If you weren’t kind of bummed out by Danny yet, you will be here: It’s clear Danny’s brothers think he gets off on making people uncomfortable and stirring the pot (and maybe he does because he’s been ostracized from this family for so long). He wants to be the center of attention, to the extent that he’s noticed and respected by those in his family who can still tolerate him. He wants what his siblings seem to have: stable lives with significant others. But of course he can’t have any of this, and doesn’t, because he’s the black sheep, and something long ago crushed both his self-confidence and his will to abide by social norms.
This point is driven home in another top-notch scene, delivered by Shepard in the form of the most awkward family speech of all time: While thanking his party’s attendees for supporting the Rayburn clan and its business, Robert praises his kids one by one. When he comes to Danny, he takes a drink before reminding everyone how much of a burden his wayward eldest is. Throughout the rest of the episode, the dynamics are teased in glances and brief exchanges: Sally looks at Danny with an ever-adoring sadness (even when he’s naked and passed out on the dock), merely forcing a semblance of happiness because he’s home; Robert and Kevin can’t be bothered by Danny; John feels like he has to babysit Big Brother because that’s what he’s done his whole life (and why should that change now?); and Meg, at least in this episode, is indifferent.
Out of nowhere we’re reminded John is a sheriff and has a job to do. The show waxes Criminal Minds–y for about five minutes while a body is fished out of the mangroves (don’t worry, this comes back later; just file it under “okay, weird” for now). Back at home, Danny tells John’s wife about one of his abusive relationship stories, in which a woman he dated asked him to punch her in the face during sex. The story sounds like a fake pity grab, and you get the feeling that much of Danny’s adult life has been fueled by a deep-seated jealousy (of John) and a series of humdrum disappointments spurred on by his failure to gain his father’s acceptance. (Cue next cryptic flash-forward: The Bananas in Pajamas are now boarding a boat.) If you’ve ever seen Mendelsohn’s other roles, you’re very scared for him being alone with John’s wife. Thankfully, nothing bad happens, but at the end of this scene, we again see that Danny is adept at manipulation, getting underneath people’s skin.
On the other hand, there are sprinklings of Danny that genuinely seem like he wants to help his family and be a stand-up guy. He wants to claim his namesake, he wants stability — also probably just to be loved. There’s an almost chameleonic nature to his character’s moral capriciousness that seems punctuated by a lack of agency. He’s pulled to shore by the white knight John; he’s pulled to take the plunge by the parolee Eric. While John tries to convince the siblings to re-accept Danny into the fold, the black sheep hallucinates and nearly drowns to death in a cross-faded night swim, egged on by Eric’s ill whisperings of the Rayburns. If you thought the siblings didn’t get along before the end of this episode, naked Danny on the dock is the last straw: John lies to Danny and says Danny can’t stay. (Cue last cryptic flash-forward: John blows up the boat.) But Danny stays.
How nervous was I at the beginning of this episode? Very nervous. After reading some of this show’s initial reviews, I began having flashbacks to when I brokenheartedly read the reviews of Riggins’s John Carter. The problems with this episode, though, were small: The dialogue was poor at times; the acting, a little overdramatic; there was a lot of talking about Danny’s fuck-ups rather than showing them. But Mendelsohn was riveting as Danny. Every other sibling also has room for disasters to derail their intriguing façade-plastered lives. I’ll happily bite. Give me more, Rayburns. Give me more.
- Lots of sweat on this show. Lots.
- “John, you know I love you, brother. I have sexy dreams about you.” Okay, Kevin, maybe talk to someone about this.
- It’s amazing to me that Kyle Chandler’s frown and smile look virtually identical. Nothing is more impressive.
- Kidding, his drunk dancing in this episode was divine.
- None of these people look related, but whatever, I think I love this show, which, at times, yes, feels like Coach Taylor helming an adults-only beach-volleyball team.
- “Janie’s back in bed, and I think Ben is watching porn.” “Wow, he takes after his dad.” “You know.” Wow, very chill, very 2015.
- Good thing nobody here owns a smartphone.
- Danny’s date watched all of Miley Cyrus’s music videos before going to the party. What an absolute hero. OkCupid, Keys Edition, must be an absolute trip.
- Remember when John and Marco were neck-deep in the waters of the mangroves, looking for that body? Would you have lost your mind if Marco had said Polo when John called his name? Missed opportunity.
- Did Surf get eaten by a gator?
- What was Danny’s speech? Lots of Danny questions.