“What if Hannibal, but a family drama?” is basically the premise of Prodigal Son, FOX’s new drama from Chuck co-creator Chris Fedak, along with former Bored to Death (and Ben and Kate!) writer Sam Sklaver. Given those credits, and the tantalizing potential of a network finally unearthing a worthy successor to NBC’s masterpiece “murder procedural” (as I like to call the genre), it might seem like Prodigal Son would be an easy sell in what’s shaping up to be an underwhelming fall for new network drama – and yet, its pilot only offers a lame imitation of the series it so clearly wants to emulate.
Prodigal Son could very well exist as an interesting psychological experiment if its procedural plots would bear some thought-provoking fruit.
Like many “original” network dramas in this day and age, Prodigal Son‘s pilot attempts to Frankenstein together a bunch of half-hearted ideas. Tom Payne stars as Malcolm Bright, an FBI profiler whose character is an overwhelming collection of daddy issue tropes and an uncanny amount of “unique” character tics. In the span of forty minutes, we learn Malcolm suffers from PTSD, tremors, hallucinations, insomnia, psychotic tendencies, night terrors, anxiety, and has to sleep restrained with a mouth guard… which leads him to completely disregard normal social cues, of course.
This, we are told, is the cost of his uncanny ability to think from the point of view of a serial killer; a “gift” he has because he’s spent his entire life trying to understand why his father became a serial killer himself. Beat for beat, Prodigal Son tries to build out a complicated psychological profile of its protagonist, without really injecting any psychology into it whatsoever; it’s just “daddy issues” and “genetic instability” that defines his many, many struggles – difficulties, which question his very ability to do the job he does, so amazingly well.
It’s hard not to spend the entire review comparing Malcolm Bright to Will Graham; but the comparison is undeniable across every scene of “Pilot,” as it tries to imitate the rhythms of Hannibal, with the ever-so-careful approach of throwing narrative spaghetti against the wall for 45 minutes. As Malcolm (who just got fired from his job as a profiler) chases down his father’s copycat killer, Prodigal Son never tries to present itself as a thoughtful, insightful look at a man’s Sisyphean attempts to chase the demons haunting him – but a collection of random tics and disabilities doesn’t define Malcolm in any coherent, or more importantly, empathetic, way.
There’s a difference between having a nuanced, damaged protagonist, and a protagonist whose instabilities are used as excuses for him to be an asshole all the time; “Pilot” struggles to stay out of the trappings of the latter throughout its running time, falling into the trope of “troubled genius who is really entitled douchebag” far more often than it can afford to.
But the show’s biggest failure is in its meat and bones; Prodigal Son could very well exist as an interesting psychological experiment if its procedural plots would bear some thought-provoking fruit. “Pilot” offers a tale of a white guy killing a bunch of middle-aged white women, and offers such provoking material as blindly inferring the focal killer of the episode “he has dysmorphia because he’s bald.”
That attitude is pervasive through the heart of this first episode; be it the flashbacks to Malcolm’s childhood, or the mentally taxing career he continues to work in, Prodigal Son only considers the weight of its narrative in how it serves the next line of dialogue. There’s no room for exploration, no consideration for nuance; without that, there’s nothing for Prodigal Son to fall back on, thanks to a distinct lack of identity, visually or narrative-ly. Everything is by-the-numbers and superficial as it can get away with; but on a show that directly wants us to engage with the disturbing and grotesque, is rather squeamish about delving into its own uncomfortable premise.
It’s not an entirely hopeless affair; with Michael Sheen in the Lecter-adjacent role as Malcolm’s estranged serial killer father, there are few moments where Prodigal Son offers a glimpse of hope for a better series. However, here’s way too little of him in “Pilot,” however, which limits his influence on the ability of this first hour to have any measurable impact.
The surrounding material only makes his presence even more dissonant with the rest of the first episode: where Mads Mikelson’s baroque performance directly fed into the Hannibal‘s DNA, in Prodigal Son, the character study of “The Surgeon” (as he is known to the public, and oddly referenced as by his own family members) feel antithetical to the half-hearted procedural surrounding it.
Though “Pilot” leans heavy into those moments, painting a rather complicated, strange relationship between father and son (they joke about Dahmer’s “groceries,” and have casual conversations theorizing about psychopathy and murder), everything around it betrays the few sincere moments of promise shown in those brief scenes. While they should serve the foundation of the series, they’re used to accentuate the boring central “mystery” of “Pilot,” quickly undercutting any intriguing possibilities those moments present.
A cast of laughably bad side characters also does not help; led by a lieutenant who makes sexually-charged, disparaging comments about a dead body, and a coroner who gets excited about how victims were tortured, Prodigal Son‘s non-family ensemble have a hard time leaving their impact on the proceedings. Even Lou Diamond Philips as the “guy who is ready to give protagonist his fourteenth chance” blends into the background as “Pilot” weaves its tale of a serial killer who keeps his torture techniques hidden inside scrolls.
Prodigal Son wants to offer the facade of being a layered drama, a character study accentuated by psychological horror; but “Pilot” can only offer a rough framework of how its brand of blood and brain-picking could work on a weekly basis. When it does, it’s mostly as a dry, cut-and-paste procedural, with no actual interest in the layers of human psychology, beyond how it can lead to an “unsettling” moment of violence. If it can find a way to dial back its protagonist in some way, and slow down its investigations enough to be more complex than a few bullet points scribbled on a Post-It, there is a path where Prodigal Son could become a watchable imitation of the serial killer series and true crime podcasts it so desperately wants to its draw audiences from. “Pilot” just isn’t it.