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PRODIGAL SON Pilot Review: Does FOX’s New Serial Killer Drama Have What it Takes to Stay Alive?

BY Jennifer Griffin

Published 5 years ago

PRODIGAL SON Pilot Review: Does FOX's New Serial Killer Drama Have What it Takes to Stay Alive?

PRODIGAL SON: Tom Payne in the “Pilot” series premiere episode of PRODIGAL SON airing Monday, Sept. 23 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2019 FOX MEDIA LLC. Cr: David Giesbrecht / FOX.

Like most serial killer dramas on Broadcast TV in recent years, Prodigal Son is profoundly silly.

Hannibal, The Following, Dexter, Bates Motel et al revolve around a central notion that it’s ok to kill a whole lot of people if they’re really really bad to begin with. And if you do happen to be of the serial killing persuasion, then you’re probably a super smart super sleuth to boot. Yet despite knowing in our heart of hearts that real actual serial killers aren’t the cool, intellectual, sexy avenging angels we see on TV, we keep watching as new iterations of stabby, shooty, lethal-injectiony bad-good guys turn up like so many blonde 30 something female cadavers on a medical examiner’s slab.

Our love of unhinged hero villains shows no signs of abating, and if you love the genre too, you’ve got to be willing to turn a blind  eye, and just agree to roll with it.

Rolling with it this fall is FOX’s latest serial killer drama Prodigal Son, which premieres Sept. 23. The series sees The Walking Dead’s Tom Payne (minus the beard, plus one handsome face) taking on the role of Malcolm Bright, son of Martin (Michael Sheen), an eminent cardiothoracic-surgeon-slash-prolific-serial-killer, dubbed (what else?) The Surgeon.

Young Malcolm has a keen eye for anatomy and science, and we suspect might have gone on to follow in his father’s footsteps had he not uncovered Dad’s penchant for killing and dismembering people and then storing their bodies in the basement.

But wait! There’s still time for young Malcolm to emulate Dad after all, especially as we watch him, via flashback, go on to spend much of his childhood and adolescence visiting his father alone(!) in a psychiatric hospital. Why is Malcom’s mother ok with this? The show is uninterested in answering that question, but what it does want us to know is that all of those deeply disturbing formative talks somehow manage to turn young, impressionable Malcolm into an adult super FBI forensic profiler.  You may be interested to know that Malcolm also has night terrors, PTSD, hand tremors, a sleep walking habit that necessities a gum shield and bed restraints, a deeply narcissistic streak, and could possibly maybe become a serial killer himself, given the right nudge. Thankfully, he doesn’t wet the bed because, Ew! Step too far. Seriously, why did Malcolm’s mother allow him to spend so much time with his unhinged murderous father again?

However it’s only when Malcolm is kicked out of the FBI (plot twist!) for being too smugly correct, and maybe just a bit too creepy, that the action really kicks off. Enter Lou Diamond Phillips as salt of the earth Gil Arroyo, an NYPD detective who could really do with Malcolm’s special skills on a case. It turns out someone is mimicking The Surgeon’s old MO, and it’s up to Malcolm to find out who.

PRODIGAL SON: L-R: Frank Harts, Lou Diamond Phillips and Tom Payne. Cr: David Giesbrecht / FOX.

Of course, after hitting a convenient dead end or two, Malcolm quickly turns to Dear Old Dad for an assist, and the seeds of a weekly procedural are sown, as the killer and the could-be killer get inside the mind of the third … and sometimes fourth killer to solve the case. There’s a lot of killing. What can we say? New York is a terrible place for those who have done bad things and need to be punished. And also for 30-something blonde women victims who are literally piling up on medical examiners’ tables right now.

Added to the mix is Malcolm’s well-heeled family in the form of his socialite mother (Scandal’s Bellamy Young) who says things like “Dear, we’re having a petite soirée later” to signal just how wealthy and removed from reality she truly is, because nobody outside of a writer’s room has ever uttered the words “We’re having a petite soirée.” in the history of forever. When Mom is not lapsing into French, she’s hitting the fancy whiskey, inviting people to soirées then storming off before serving the second course, offering her son a truly disturbing selection of pills for his nerves, and referring to that one time her husband was arrested for killing over 20 people as the family’s “disgrace”.

Thankfully, Malcolm has the ear of his “annoyingly normal sister” Ainsley (The Orville’s Halston Sage), as described in the Network’s log lines. (We think they’re being too generous here; she’s just annoying.) Ainsley wants to be a hard hitting news reporter, but for some reason that’s never quite clarified isn’t. However both Mom and Sis are simply too breezy and underwritten to come across as anything other than stage dressing in the pilot episode (Ditto Malcolm’s NYPD colleagues), and it’s up to Tom Payne, Lou Diamond Phillips and Michael Sheen to do most of the heavy lifting. Not that there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do this first episode. The case of the week, which we won’t spoil for you here, is both unimaginative and predictable, and you’ve straight up seen it already if you’ve ever watched an episode of CSI.

Our willingness to turn a blind eye to the inherent silliness of serial killers on TV aside, the pilot episode of Prodigal Son could have done better.  The show boasts a terrific cast who are unfortunately wasted on some truly cringe-worthy dialogue and over-used TV tropes – a not great sign in a pilot episode, where every detail should shine.

“I like to imagine the crime from the killer’s point of view.”

“You think like a killer!”

Yes, we get it. 

The show itself is not as provocative or violent as The Following or Hannibal, nor are the characters as compelling as those in Bates Motel or Dexter. In the littered landscape of dead serial killer dramas, Prodigal Son may well struggle to stay alive this fall if doesn’t succeed in being as sharp as its premise.

Prodigal Son stars Tom Payne as Malcolm Bright, Michael Sheen as Dr. Martin Whitly, Bellamy Young as Jessica Whitly, Lou Diamond Phillips as Gil Arroyo, Aurora Perrineau as Dani Powell, Frank Harts as JT Tarmel, Halston Sage as Ainsley Whitly, and Keiko Agena as Dr. Edrisa Guilfoyle.

It kicks off on Monday, Sept. 23 (9:01-10:01 PM ET/PT) on FOX.