'Prodigal Son': TV Review

Enjoyable scenery-chewing isn't enough.
9/23/2019

Michael Sheen, Bellamy Young and Tom Payne are a lot of fun, but the procedural elements are a bore in Fox's serial killer dramedy.

Back in August, amid many jokes about the decline and fall of Western Civilization, it was announced that Lucky Charms would be selling a marshmallows-only edition. To some people, that sounded disgusting, but there was still an appreciated candor in being able to admit, "You know, the oat lumps aren't very good — much less good for you — anyway, so just give me the sugary pellets that are all I crave."

I need a marshmallows-only version of Fox's new drama Prodigal Son.

Give me a cut of this show that's exclusively Michael Sheen and Bellamy Young chewing scenery — Tom Payne can stick around so that they have somebody to play off of — and I would watch it every single week. I'd give it my highest recommendation and praise it as one of the best new broadcast dramas in years. But if you make me wade through 30+ minutes of completely fungible weekly crime-fighting to get to the tasty parts? This isn't 1995 and there's too much available TV to tune in regularly for a 42-minute broadcast drama of which I love only five minutes. On the other hand, how many new broadcast shows do I love even five minutes of? Not that many.

Created by Chris Fedak & Sam Sklaver, Prodigal Son is the latest in Fox's seemingly endless string of procedurals focused on law enforcement paired with quirky civilian contractors. Here, that structure actually functions on two levels.

Malcolm Bright (Payne) is a brilliant profiler fired from a job at the FBI because his methodology was unorthodox and, in a manner that may be a violation of some sort of employment law, because of family connections. More on that in a second.

Malcolm is recruited by Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips), an NYPD detective, to serve as an eccentric consultant on particularly gory cases. Because of that unorthodox methodology — not that "seeing crime scenes through the eyes of the killer" seems even slightly unorthodox if you're a regular TV viewer — Malcolm is soon causing very minor friction with new colleagues including JT (Frank Harts), Dani (Aurora Perrineau) and Edrisa (Keiko Agena), and that only increases when they discover that part of why Malcolm was fired at the FBI and even changed his last name is because his father, Dr. Martin Whitly (Sheen), was the notorious serial killer known as The Surgeon, and part of his process is chatting with dear old dad. So you have a quirky civilian contractor with the NYPD who, himself, is getting advice from the quirkiest of civilian contractors, one living in a surprisingly roomy cell in a moody establishing shot of a prison or psychiatric facility.

Honestly, though, Malcolm's co-workers have cause for concern. Leaving aside whether or not certain homicidal traits can be passed along genetically, Malcolm suffers from night terrors, a hand tremor and several other ailments tied to learning the truth about his dad at a formative age. There's only so much his smothering socialite mother (Young) and sister Ainsley (Halston Sage), an innocuously unconvincing TV reporter, can do to help.

Carrying over his bushy beard and utter lack of restraint from The Good Fight, Sheen is a malevolent delight, mixing Yoda-ish platitudes like "What if psychopathy is not a disease? What if it's a kind of genius?" with genuine paternal concern and just enough of a wild-eyed glint to convey danger when he wants to. Soon it may be time for somebody to go back and be reminded of how marvelously subtle Sheen was in Masters of Sex, but he's on a roll where there aren't many actors I more enjoy seeing go over the top. He's totally matched by Young (who probably would have won multiple Emmys for Scandal in a different TV era) in a performance of unctuous, affluent maternity that's giving me Angela Lansbury in Manchurian Candidate vibes, which isn't spoiling anything through the three episodes sent to critics.

The nice thing about Payne's performance is that his character comes off as the believable offspring of these two scene-stealers. He does nothing small and, in certain moments, he's really, really funny and plays off of Young and Sheen nicely. I'm less convinced by his scenes with Sage, but that may be because the early directors treat their sibling interactions as much more flirtatious than they probably should be, a combination of framing and performance choices, mostly.

Payne's amusing moments carry over into some of the procedural interactions. He and Agena have a good energy and the foundation to be a relationship I might really like, while Phillips gives off more respectably paternal vibes. Nobody's really "bad."

The problem is that in three episodes, not one of the crimes that Bright is brought in to help solve is even slightly memorable. There are gross moments to a couple of the murders and pilot director Lee Toland Krieger delivers jittery ambiance that neither subsequent episode can match, but I'm just days away from watching these episodes and I couldn't tell you about any of the cases or what Malcolm's chats with Martin had to do with helping solve the crime. I do remember that the perp in the first episode is a familiar and wildly overqualified actor whose squandering made me very briefly infuriated. But I got over it.

Prodigal Son is trapped in that all-too-familiar position that most network dramas find themselves in these days, between wanting to tell cable-style arced stories and satisfying broadcast murder-of-the-week mandates. In that respect it's a big improvement over Fedak's somewhat similar 2018 ABC drama Deception, in which neither the mythology nor the procedural elements came together. Fedak, of course, also co-created Chuck, one of the rare broadcast unicorns that hit on both sides of the equation.

Here, I'd be happy to watch any version of Prodigal Son that was entirely Sheen, Young and Payne sitting around talking, and I even have limited investment in several implied mysteries tied to their family dynamic and The Surgeon's body count. If someone would just send me a weekly cutdown that ditched the rest of the show, this prodigal critic might be convinced to return and watch more.

Cast: Tom Payne, Michael Sheen, Bellamy Young, Lou Diamond Phillips, Halston Sage, Aurora Perrineau, Frank Harts, Keiko Agena
Creators: Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)