TV Recap: Prodigal Son – Love It Or Leave It? (Spoiler Free)

Prodigal Son
Love It Or Leave It? Review
September 16, 2019

On Monday, September 23, 2019, Fox will kick off its the 2019-20 television season with the premiere of its newest crime drama (and psychological thriller), Prodigal Son.

From executive producer Greg Berlanti, executive producer Sarah Schechter (Riverdale; You), and executive producers/writers Chris Fedak (Deception; Chuck) and Sam Sklaver (Deception, Bored to Death), Prodigal Son stars Tom Payne (The Walking Dead) and Michael Sheen (Good Omens; Masters of Sex), both at the top of their game. Prodigal Son is going to keep you on the edge of your seat but also make you laugh with a wonderfully dark, macabre sense of humor.

Read on for our thoughts on Prodigal Son and whether we think you should Love It Or Leave It!

PRODIGAL SON Logo © FOX 2019

Official Show Synopsis.
Frank Harts, Keiko Agena, Aurora Perrineau, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Sheen, Tom Payne, Bellamy Young and Halston Sage. Cr: Mark Seliger/ FOX.

From Fox’s website:

“From Emmy Award-nominated executive producer Greg Berlanti, executive producer Sarah Schechter (“Riverdale,” “You”), and executive producers/writers Chris Fedak (“Deception,” “Chuck”) and Sam Sklaver (“Deception,” “Bored to Death”), PRODIGAL SON is a fresh take on a crime franchise with a provocative and outrageous lead character and a darkly comedic tone.

“MALCOLM BRIGHT (Tom Payne, “The Walking Dead”) has a gift. He knows how killers think and how their minds work. Why? Back in the 1990s, his father was one of the worst, a notorious serial killer called “The Surgeon.” So it makes sense Bright is the best criminal psychologist around; murder is the family business. He will use his twisted genius to help the NYPD solve crimes and stop killers, all while dealing with a manipulative mother, annoyingly normal sister, a homicidal father still looking to bond with his prodigal son, and his own constantly evolving neuroses.

“Meet the happy family. DR. MARTIN WHITLY (Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominee Michael Sheen, “Masters of Sex,” “Frost/Nixon”) is intelligent, wealthy, charismatic and also happens to be a predatory sociopath who killed at least 23 people. Bright’s mother, JESSICA WHITLY (Bellamy Young, “Scandal,” “Criminal Minds”), an elegant and WASPy New Yorker, wields sarcasm like a samurai sword and has an opinion on every aspect of Bright’s life. Perhaps Bright’s only ally is his sister, AINSLEY WHITLY (Halston Sage, THE ORVILLE), a TV journalist who wishes her brother would “take a break from murder” and have a normal life.

“Unfortunately for his sister, the only way Bright feels normal is by solving cases with the help of his longtime mentor, NYPD Detective GIL ARROYO (Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominee Lou Diamond Phillips, “Longmire,” “Stand and Deliver”). Arroyo’s one of the best detectives around, and he expects no less from his team – Detective DANI POWELL (Aurora Perrineau, “The Carmichael Show,” “Jem and the Holograms”), a headstrong no-nonsense cop who quickly becomes impressed with Bright’s work; and Detective JT TARMEL (Frank Harts, “Master of None,” “Billions”), a born-and-bred New Yorker who questions whether Bright is a psychopath himself.

“So much for normal.

“PRODIGAL SON is produced by Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television and FOX Entertainment. Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter serve as executive producers. Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver are both executive producers, showrunners and writers on the series. Lee Toland Krieger directed and executive-produced the pilot.”

Thoughts.

The Son and Father.

Tom Payne and Michael Sheen Cr: David Giesbrecht / FOX.

“You’re my son and I love you. I will always love. Because we’re the same.”

Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne) is our protagonist and boy does this guy have some issues. A forensic psychologist, Bright is young and gifted. He’s also reckless and possibly deranged. What more can you expect from the son of a notorious serial killer known as “The Surgeon”? With his killer father in jail, Malcolm has dedicated his life to thinking like killers in order to catch them. After a case go sideways, Malcolm is fired from the FBI and returns to New York.  And just in time, as it turns out, because an old friend, Detective Gil Arroyo of the NYPD, needs his particular gifts to help solve a string of new murders. This is the set up for Prodigal Son and luckily, we don’t need to wait long to learn how possibly emotionally and psychologically damaged Bright is. Is he a little too much like his father? Time will tell. The Pilot episode gives us a very formed character in Malcom Bright and, through Payne’s strong performance of this manic character, it’s clear that there is a depth and complexity here of which we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Payne, who I adored on The Walking Dead as the kind and determined Jesus, gives us a new side of him with his performance of Malcolm. His eyes sparkle and dazzle with life as he works his way through a crime scene, he clearly relishes the puzzle of thinking like a killer – it’s possible he’s never more alive than when he is knee deep in death. It’s fascinating to watch and you can’t help but smile at his dark humor and macabre depravity.

Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen) is a father, desperate to make a connection to his son, Malcolm, and be there for him. He’s also a convicted serial killer, doing time in a maximum security prison/psych ward (think a posher version of Hannibal Lecter’s digs in Silence of the Lambs). Which, given the latter, makes you wonder about the former? Is it sincere longing for his son, or just a manipulation? A control power play?  Whitly was known as “The Surgeon” due to his precise mutilation of bodies during his string of murders twenty years ago.  We learn that Martin kept up a relationship with his son for some time after his imprisonment but when Malcolm joined the FBI, he cut ties to his murderous dad as to not taint himself with the same killer’s brush. Now, circumstance has brought Malcolm back to his father and Martin is determined to not less his son walk away from him again. Sheen is giving a tremendous performance in the Pilot episode. With relatively very little screentime (so far), we fully understand that Martin Whitly’s mind works differently than most everyone else’s BUT he also is working to convince his son that they’re so alike as to necessitate them having a relationship. Whitly’s also got the same off-kilter sense of humor that his son has and it makes it very hard to not like this monster of a human. Like Payne does with Malcolm, Sheen presents Whitley as a complex character, equal parts sociopath and father working to earn his son’s affection … or adoration? Given the genius of the killer, I hesitate to whole heartedly believe anything he’s selling at this point. With the conceit of the show being what it is, these two are going to spend a lot of time together onscreen and I am here for it!

The Sister and Mother.

Halston Sage, Bellamy Young and Tom Payne Cr: David Giesbrecht / FOX.

With a serial killer father and forensic psychologist brother obsessed with death, you’d think that Malcolm’s sister, Ainsley Whitly (Halston Sage, The Orville), would have her own deep seeded issues. But, through the Pilot anyway, the most off thing about Ainsley is how perfectly normal she appears. Concerned for her brother’s mental well-being, her biggest life concern seems to be trying to convince him to take a break from death. As a TV journalist, Ainsley will surely play a role in Malcolm’s life, covering his work from a reporter’s point of view.  Sage fits right in to this dynamo cast and is at home as the normal sister from this crazy family. I am looking forward to more screentime with her and Malcolm, as well as exploring her relationships with her serial killer father (she was very young when The Surgeon went to prison and so does not have a deep relationship with her father) and her mother, Jessica.

Jessica Whitly (Bellamy Young, Scandal) is Malcolm and Ainsley’s mother, wife to a serial killer, and a New York socialite all rolled into one. We don’t get nearly enough time with Jessica in the Pilot so I am reserving judgement on her but from what we’ve seen, she deeply disapproves her son’s career choice, given what his father ended up doing for a living. Also, despite being the wife of a notorious serial killer, Jessica has a healthy life as a socialite and mover and shaker in New York – how has she maintained such a status given the family shame? I don’t know but I am looking forward to watching the inimitable Bellamy Young bring her to life.

The Police Family.

Keiko Agena, Lou Diamond Phillips, Frank Harts and Aurora Perrineau Cr: David Giesbrecht / FOX.

Following his dismissal from the FBI, Malcolm returns to New York where he is immediately contacted by his old friend, NYPD Detective Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips, Longmire). Arroyo appreciates Bright’s immense talent and bring him on to his team of tough NY cops … but he’s also wary of them finding out about Malcolm’s father’s identity. Arroyo is part of a small group that no about the familial connection between Malcolm Bright and Martin Whitly. Phillips is a television veteran and brings a large amount of gravitas to every role he plays. That is not different in Prodigal Son. His scenes with Payne’s Malcolm jump off the screen and we understand these two have a long history – we haven’t seen it yet but I have to imagine that Gil has been something of a father figure to Malcolm for most of his life. I am looking forward to exploring their shared backstory more as the series progresses.  We know from the Pilot that we’ll be working with flashbacks so I am hoping we get to chronicle the evolution of their relationship.

Backing up Gil is his team of tough acting Detectives Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau, When They See Us; Into the Dark) and JT Tarmel (Frank Harts, BullThe Path), and Edrisa Tanaka (Keiko Agena, Undone; Dirty John), an awkward medical examiner who is fascinated by death almost as much as Malcolm. Dani and JT suspect of Malcolm from the jump, with JT in particular being skeptical of Gil bringing on a guy who seems so fascinated by death. Their first meeting … does not go well. Dani is also suspect of Bright but comes around much more quickly, appreciating how “in touch” Malcolm seems to be with the mind of a killer. The question will be how these two crime fighters will react if and when they find out Malcolm’s mind for killing is something of a family business. Harts and Perrineau provide strong support to this ensemble cast but I want to single out Perrineau for a break out performance in the Pilot. She clicks with Payne on screen and these two have an easy chemistry that is going to be  exciting to watch as the season unfolds.

Love It Or Leave It?

LOVE IT!!!  Prodigal Son could easily be a cookie cutter crime drama, lord knows that we have a seen a million of them come through television in the last two decades, but that would be a terrible waste of a cast with such deep talent. And so I am happy to say that Prodigal Son reaches, and succeeds, to be more. It is a genuine, edge of your seat psychological thriller, the best of the genre since Hannibal and Dexter and I think it’s better than both of those. Payne and Sheen are full of frenetic life as a believable father and son and make the show worth watching on their own. The possibilities of where the series will take us as these two explore (and repair?) their estranged relationship are endless but wait, there is more! This is no one or two note series; the supporting cast that Prodigal Son has put together is top rate and any of them could have their own stories that we’d gladly want to delve into.

The exploration of the themes of family and the relationship between Martin and Malcolm (as well as between the men, and Jessica and Ainsley) will be as powerful to watch as the crime drama aspect of the show which benefits from high end production values.  There is nothing but potential for Prodigal Son and the sky is the limit.

Now, my worry. The state of network television being what it is, I am always worried when a smart, original, darkly funny series makes its way to air because the networks just do not seem to have the patience to let these shows find their footing. Prodigal Son is at its best when it’s being a psychological thriller full of black humor but, if it needs to lean on a crime of the week, procedural methodology to satisfy the powers that be and find a broader audience, I will allow it because this is the kind of TV I want to see. I am a big fan of both Payne and Sheen and I was beyond delighted to see them in these new twisted damaged roles; they really both shine in this first hour and I cannot wait to see where we go from here.

Prodigal Son premieres on September 23, 2019 and will air on Monday nights on Fox at 9pm (ET/PT). We’ll be Live Tweeting this show so please, join us! 

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