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Aside From Talented Actors, 'Prodigal Son' Has Little Else to Offer
September 23, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Even in the age of Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, some TV shows still feel too unpleasant to sit down and watch.  

Prodigal Son, a new series that premieres at 9:00 p.m. ET Monday on Fox, can be defended, and perhaps in some ways enjoyed, as a psychological thriller and a well-acted drama. 

It just feels more creepy than engaging. 

Tom Payne plays Malcolm Bright, who profiles criminals for a living. 

He’s very good at it because he learned from the best, one Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), a prolific serial killer who is also Malcolm’s father. 

Dr. Whitly was arrested, several dozen victims into his lethal avocation, when Malcolm was a pre-teen. Up until that point, Malcolm had no reason to believe his Dad wasn’t just a regular old successful cardiothoracic surgeon who was devoted to Malcolm, his wife Jessica (Bellamy Young) and Malcolm’s younger sister Ainsley (Halston Sage). 

We get that part of the backstory, including a brief view of Dr. Whitly’s arrest in the family living room, through flashbacks. 

For years after Dr. Whitly’s conviction and multiple life prison sentences, Malcolm continued to visit him – partly out of residual blood loyalty and increasingly out of curiosity why his father would kill all those people. 

Those conversations, which again we see only in brief flashbacks, never answered the question concisely. They did give Malcolm much of the insight he would later use in his profiling career. Essentially, he learned to look at crime from the perspective of the criminal.

It helped that Malcolm – who changed his name to Bright because of the paternal baggage – was a smart kid. He went to Harvard and landed a job with the FBI, though as we join the show, the FBI has fired him for breaking protocol, acting recklessly, and punching a local cop. 

That sort of behavior, we soon realize, is another part of Malcolm’s legacy from his Dad. Jessica seems to have coped in part by drinking. Ainsley became a television reporter who guards her life carefully and Malcolm, well, he seems to take it day by day, living with the sleepless nights and frequent gruesome flashbacks. 

He stopped seeing his father when he joined the FBI, ten years earlier, but that didn’t erase Dad from Malcolm’s hard drive. 

And even as he helps solve a new case every week – did we mention that Prodigal Son is also a police procedural? – he’s still wondering why his Dad killed all those people. 

So Prodigal Son moves forward from this rather somber premise, and while we’re sympathetic to Malcolm, he isn’t always the most likeable of characters. 

More of the show’s problem, though, lies with Dr. Whitly, who shares considerable DNA with a previous star serial killer, Hannibal Lecter. 

He has that same smugness, the sense that he’s already won the game and even if he’s now physically restrained, no one can stop him from racking up more victories. If this new round of wins is more psychological than visceral, they’re wins nonetheless.  

Toward that end, Sheen plays Dr. Whitly with a sort of breezy confidence, the kind one might expect from an erudite professor. Or a top surgeon. He talked to Malcolm about serial killing, as Dr. Whitly puts it, “the way other people talk about sports.”

You half expect he’s going to break out some serial-killer jokes. (“How many serial killers does it take to tighten a thumbscrew?”)

He has a reason for this confidence. For one thing, he has resumed his medical practice behind bars, performing private operations for “wealthy Saudis.”

If you’re wondering how this works within the prison system, that’s another point that isn’t fully explained.

As all this suggests, Sheen’s Dr. Whitly isn’t your standard TV police procedural villain, and Prodigal Son clearly hopes viewers will find that engaging – a fresh antihero in the spirit of, say, Breaking Bad's Walter White. 

The devil here, beyond Dr. Whitly himself, lies in the details. His goal in serial killing, it turns out, was to inflict maximum pain and suffering on his victims. Do we need that rolling around in our heads?  

Bad guys can be good characters, of course, and this show juxtaposes its alpha bad guy with people who are either good or struggling to be good.

It’s not sufficient. Prodigal Son offers neither enough entertainment nor enough catharsis. 

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