From 2013 to 2015, there wasn’t a show on network television pushing more boundaries than Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal.” The television adaption of Thomas Harris’s novels was a stylish examination of the serial killer genre. The core of “Hannibal” was the bond between the two main characters that kept bringing audiences back. But when the show was cancelled, a hole was left in network television for a procedural that rose above traditional tropes. While not as violent as “Hannibal,” Fox’s “Prodigal Son” will gleefully fill that missing void.
“Prodigal Son” follows Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), whose serial killer father, Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), was arrested when he was a young boy. Malcolm shares a close relationship with his father before and after his arrest. He would often visit him and continue their chats about the criminal mind. Malcolm shares his father’s affinity for bloodshed but his intention to learn more, not for sinister purposes like Martin, but to help people. Thus, when he wants to work for the FBI, he abandons his father to rebuild his life. Payne demonstrates the right amount of humanity in Malcolm’s decision, as he makes the tough choice of abandoning his father due to the fear of becoming him.
Flash forward 10 years, Malcolm is a promising criminal psychologist, tracking down serial killers. His methods are unorthodox, leading many to question Malcolm’s mental state. His anger is very much like his father’s, and he loses his job with the FBI. But he gets a new gig when Gil (Lou Diamond Phillips), an old friend from the past, comes needing help with a murder case for the NYPD. As Malcolm starts investigating the case, he starts to unravel. He sees haunting visions from his past, with many pieces of these memories missing. When he narrows down suspects, he realizes Martin is the only person that can help him solve the case.
From that revelation, “Prodigal Son” fully dives into its “Hannibal” roots, but with a personal twist. Malcolm fights every temptation to go to his darker side, and we see the toll it takes on him. He chains himself when he sleeps, takes tons of pills and goes days without eating. He is not okay, and it’s because he fights who he really is. By facing his father, he can find out why he truly is this way and start to heal some of the pain that festers in his mind.
Their encounter elevates the normal cop-serial killer relationship into a father-son reunion of psychological proportions. The tension oozes between the two men and this is when Payne and Sheen are at their best. Malcolm still doesn’t trust his father and Martin is desperate for their relationship to resume. Sheen plays Martin’s hopelessness masterfully since his only connection to the outside world is his son. More importantly, Malcolm is Martin’s only tie to Malcolm’s mother and sister (Bellamy Young, Halston Sage), who won’t visit Martin at all. So, father and son make a deal to help each other, and just like that, their twisted bond is reborn.
While Phillips, Young, Sage, and others do a fine job in their roles, they aren’t the focus for a reason. “Prodigal Son” is an unnerving two-hander that relies deeply on the fractured relationship that Malcolm and Martin have. Much like Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal, Sheen’s Martin is mildly used, but when he is on the screen, the show goes to another level. The Emmy and Golden Globe nominated actor is massively talented so it’s a treat to see him as an unpredictable villain. But while Sheen is magnificent, Tom Payne is equally as fascinating. He transforms Malcolm from a charming hotshot into trouble yet sympathetic hero. Therefore, the audience wants to root for him to fill in the gaps in his memories, no matter the costs.
“Prodigal Sons” was created by Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver, who are the minds around ABC’s “Deception.” Unlike that short-lived show, they have a real gem on their hands. It’s the kind of show that can blossom into one of the most hypnotic stories on network television. To maintain its momentum though, “Prodigal Son” needs to dive deeper into the father-son relationship. It’s at its strongest when the two leads are together, descending into matters similar shows wouldn’t go near. But like most new series, that should come in time as things progress. “Prodigal Son” is one of the brightest new shows of the fall with plenty of potentials to blossom into something great.