Fox’s new ‘Prodigal Son’ shows promise, but needs to break procedure

Murder as a family matter

Photo courtesy of Prodigal Son official Facebook page.

Photo courtesy of Prodigal Son official Facebook page.

By Kathrine Esten, Assistant News Editor

If the premiere of Fox’s newest crime drama tells us anything, it’s that the quickest way to an audience’s heart might be with a knife.

With its emphasis on brutal, impossible-to-solve murders, “Prodigal Son” appeals to audiences coming off a wave of serial killer content (“My Friend Dahmer” (2017), “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (2019), “The Ted Bundy Tapes” (2019)). However, the show takes on the killer’s psyche and makes it a family affair.

Despite opening to mixed critical reviews, “Prodigal Son” premiered on Monday night to 4.2 million viewers with a generally favorable audience response. The show, created by Chris Fedak (“Chuck,” “Deception”) and Sam Sklaver (“Deception,” “Blunt Talk”) follows Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne, of “The Walking Dead”), an intelligent but troubled ex-FBI profiler brought on to investigate a series of murders with the New York Police Department. However, Bright’s interest in the macabre has its own dramatic backstory: he is the son of infamous serial killer “The Surgeon,” Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen).

As far as pilots go, “Prodigal Son” holds promise. The episode manages to establish a reasonable plot line without dragging too much. Since his father’s arrest in 1998, Malcolm has struggled to understand his father’s actions and fears the final thing Martin told him as police pulled him away: “We are the same.” Overconfident in his own abilities, “Prodigal Son” channels BBC’s “Sherlock” as Martin solves crimes from the killer’s point of view with startling accuracy. However, his PTSD and other psychological struggles cause him to lose his job. He then takes up the offer of an old friend, NYPD Detective Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips) to find another serial killer – a copycat who is replicating father’s crimes. Malcolm’s younger sister Ainsley (Halston Sage) and mother Jessica (Bellamy Young) try to convince him to move on and not confront his father’s legacy. Malcolm’s manic dedication to solving the case leads him to visit his imprisoned father for the first time in 10 years; audiences are left unsure of who holds power over whom as both reveal their inner darkness.

The characters, and the actors behind them, are the richest part of the show thus far. Payne’s Malcolm is haughty and brilliant, but deeply distressed. As with Bill Hader in “Barry,” Malcolm finds himself in emotional turmoil whenever his actions suggest he is giving into the darkness. Young, of “Scandal” fame, uses her little screen time to show deep care for her struggling son but she still establishes herself as an independent character. In public, Jessica Whitly is warm, sociable and confident, but when reminded of her husband’s crimes, she solemnly looks in a mirror and is able to recite every victim’s name by heart. Sage and Aurora Perrineau, who plays NYPD Detective Dani Powell, shined among a less-developed supporting cast who will presumably be built on as the season continues.

Sheen, fresh off his success from “Good Omens” and “The Good Fight,” ultimately delivered the most brilliant performance, reminding the audience the true value of “Prodigal Son” as an angsty family drama. In flashbacks to Malcolm’s childhood, “The Surgeon” appears as a Mr. Rogers-like figure, tucking his young son into bed and teaching him about medical techniques. The predatory sociopath, under Sheen’s careful development, nearly appears sympathetic. A calm but hurried goodbye with his young son during the arrest or worried pleas for Malcolm to continue visiting him remind viewers of the apparent humanity of the serial killer. Sheen’s Martin Whitly is a paternal Hannibal Lecter, but it’s not clear what his intentions are. Each time he reminds his son they are “the same” or creepily grins in his empty cell, Sheen sends shivers down the audiences’ spines. The pilot leaves a lot unsaid about the exact logistics of Martin’s crimes, but Sheen’s acting – and his repetition of there being “at least” 23 murders – suggests there is a lot for audiences to look forward to as the Whitly family continues to struggle with the past.

Although” Prodigal Son’s” cast is strong, the show can’t use its stellar acting as a crutch. If the show runners hope for any long-term success, it needs to avoid turning into a procedural. At some points in the episode, the NYPD team, Gil, Dani, JT Tarmel (Frank Harts) and medical examiner Edrisa Guilfoyle (Keiko Agena) spoke about the murders in the same way the topic is discussed on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Line of Duty,” “Blue Bloods,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “NCIS: New Orleans” or a dozen other shows of the same structure. Getting hung up on the technicalities of the investigation takes away time from the compelling cast playing off each other, leaving the audience to sit impatiently through a conversation which could occur on any crime-related show. Granted, the team relied on Bright’s ability to see from the killer’s point of view, although the case caused a not-so-minor mental breakdown for their new hire.

If “Prodigal Son” wants to stand out in its first season, it should rely on the personal struggles of Malcolm Bright and his dysfunctional family. Malcolm and his father seem to be willing to break procedure in pursuit of unclear and dubious goals. Hopefully, the writers will be willing to break it as well.

Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @KathrineEsten.