The Buzz: FOX’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ Needs Time To Grow Up
Reduce, reuse, and recycle is a great method to follow in terms of saving the environment, but not so much for a show. In Fox’s latest crime thriller, The Prodigal Son, the traits and tropes of most any other crime drama are all played out. FOX ordered this pilot from Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver, both of whom have had prior experience with the genre in the tv show, Deception (Chris Fedak 2018). Unfortunately Deception - which premiered and aired on ABC network - failed to garner enough attention and support to warrant a second season. Here’s to hoping that The Prodigal Son does not follow in its predecessor’s footsteps.
In The Prodigal Son, Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne) is the son of a notorious serial killer, Dr. Martin Whitly (Martin Sheen), also known by his alias as the “The Surgeon”. Bright, now a grown man, is fired from the FBI as a consultant due to concerns that he may follow in his father’s footsteps, especially given that he has a talent for empathizing and understanding the motives and thought process of killers. Throughout the pilot, the present is intercut and juxtaposed with scenes of Bright’s past, from his turbulent childhood to the deterioration of his relationship with his father as a young adult. If this plotline sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The Prodigal Son is perhaps Fox’s latest attempt to compete with NBC’s Hannibal (Bryan Fuller 2013), CBS’ The Mentalist (Bruno Heller 2008) or Elementary (Robert Doherty 2012), or BBC One’s Luther (Neil Cross 2010). Just to name a few. On a brighter side, there are a few high points that give The Prodigal Son enough pizazz to set it apart from the others.
The highlight of the series’ pilot episode is in the performance of Bright’s father Dr. Whitly, otherwise known as “The Surgeon”. Sheen does a phenomenal job of walking the line between a caring father figure and cold-blooded killer. Taking inspiration from other notorious villains like DC superstar, The Joker or Jack “Johnny” Torrence from The Shining (Stanley Kubrik 1980), Sheen equips his character with a chilling grin. It’s not even the smile itself that is disturbing, but the maniac love behind the smile. The title “Prodigal Son” comes from a religious parable in which an affluent and foolhardy young man wastes away his inheritance. After spending everything, he is still welcomed back with open arms by his father. In naming the series after this story, the show is referencing Dr. Whitly’s supposed unconditional love for his son. Dr. Whitly is distant and mocking of others, but oddly obsessive with his son. There’s even a scene where Bright metaphorically breaks up with him, stating that “this is over” and refusing to visit his incarcerated father for nearly ten years. Sheen’s portrayal is phenomenal, even more so when contrasted against the other characters.
As aforementioned earlier, there are a lot of clichés in this pilot. The dialogue is chalk full of them. For instance, if there was a murder for every time a crime drama starred a “misunderstood genius” who introduces him or herself to the audience by making an unnerving comment about their surroundings or nature, the Earth’s population would be in half already. No need for a Thanos snap. Given this, it’s rather difficult to tell whether the blame lies with the script or with the acting. Possibly both. Characters are common and overdone, like the “tough girl cop” Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau), the wisecracking cop with a chip on his shoulder JT (Frank Harts), and even the well-intended father figure Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Philips). The pacing is paradoxically both off and in place. Everything happens too suddenly with characters conveniently appearing in and new events popping up randomly, but it is still easy enough to identify the turning points and climax.
Most crime dramas have two main plots. One is the serialized plotline that carries on throughout the entire season – sometimes even the series – and the other is an episodic struggle that is usually solved within one or two episodes. The Prodigal Son appears to follow this convention. The pilot episode sums everything up nice and neat within the allotted time. Bright manages to be both fired and hired, reconcile with his estranged father, cut off a stranger’s hand (yes that is correct), and solve a crime all in the span of one episode. He can even reference another murderer, Jeffrey Dahmer, and have it apply again later in the show. Not much is left to carry over. It is made overtly clear, outright stated even, that Dr. Whitly had some connection to the crimes, possibly to regain the focus of his son. Bright is not just a paternal point of pride for him, but a mental one. Bright can understand him unlike any other, a relationship Dr. Whitly is desperate to keep going. The show already establishes this and pretty much confirms it too. No loose strings to tie up, well almost none.
There is one concern that remains yet to be fully addressed. Bright suffers from night terrors and an unidentified mental illness. As the series progresses, most likely, so too with Bright’s mental state deteriorate, alla Will Graham from Hannibal. This is not a show that utilizes the extent of its potential. That isn’t too say that The Prodigal Son is boring; it’s not, but it’s just predictable. Viewers can guess the twists and spins of the show, but still enjoy how it plays out. The Prodigal Son is successfully entertaining because it follows the same formula that countless others have done before. It’s like the youngest child that tries to emulate or copy the actions of its older siblings. Time will tell whether it can mature into a more constructive and complex series. For now, audience members are probably better off just watching Hannibal if they’re craving something dark and suspenseful for the long term.