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‘Prodigal Son’ Review: The Second Coming of the First Son

Jesus is back ya’ll! I’m not talking the savior of mankind, that’s neither here nor there, I’m talking about the savior of The Walking Dead. And he gets to embody a whole different biblical figure this time around.

For those of you who don’t know it let’s do a very quick recap of the biblical tale from which Prodigal Son gets its name. Basically, there’s a father who has two sons. One asks for his inheritance and goes out into the world and wastes it only to return destitute and humbled – fully expecting to be chewed out for being a douchebag, but is instead welcomed with open arms and fanfare! The other son stays home, works hard, is for all intents and purposes “perfect”. He resents his little brother getting parties and praise while he gets jack squat. The bottom line of the story is that dad is happy that the younger son has returned – “he was lost and now he is found”. Must be nice. I’m pretty sure if I took off with a large sum of money, wasted it, and then came home, I’d get a well-deserved beating (ok, fine, realistically a bunch of “I told you so’s”).

Prodigal Son sets up to take this concept in an interesting direction. Tom Payne plays Malcom Bright (an alias established to separate himself from his father’s notorious legacy), the title family member. He’s an FBI profiler who, wait for it…has a serial killer father! He’s not the normal kind of wasteful, though he is impulsive. Towards the beginning of our pilot, we watch Malcom lose his job because he punches a local sheriff in the face…for shooting a suspect who was clearly cooperating (granted, said suspect was a serial killer). He’s also fired because he seems a bit too trigger happy when jumping into dangerous situations, with seemingly little regard for himself or his fellow officers. Impulse control issues? Lack of fear? A clear disregard for the law? Check, check, and check! You might be a sociopath if…

But where’s the other son? Surprise! It’s 2019; he’s a daughter now! Hi, Halston Sage! I didn’t recognize you without your Orville makeup on. Not that it matters, poor Malcom’s sister, Ainsley Whitly (a reporter who, despite being in the public eye, does not change her last name), is largely ignored by her family. Guess that fits with the story fairly well. Their mother – played by Scandal’s Bellamy Young – calls her “perfect” therefore in no need of intervention (like when mom breaks into Malcom’s apartment after he’s fired), and dear old serial killer dad, played by Michael Sheen looking every bit the upside-down version of Mr. Rogers – complete with sweater vest and perfect manners, doesn’t even mention her once in the entire pilot. Ouch.

Speaking of which, I breezed through a few details there that require expansion. First off, the bible story never mentions a mom, and it’s clear the creators of this show aren’t exactly sure what to do with Jessica Whitly – she seems to be a cross between Lorelai’s mom on the Gilmore Girls and Michael’s mom on Arrested Development – ie. Rich, detached, funny, yet caring? And of course, always drugged or drunk. Meanwhile, our father in question is a serial killer. A “predatory sociopath” as Malcom puts it – though looking up the differences between the two his father seems a lot more like a psychopath save for his love for his son. And perhaps that’s the most important aspect of this whole set up that makes it want to fit the mold.

You have to figure, bible dad was super in love with his kid, and heartbroken when he took his inheritance and flew the coop. Sure, he had his other son, but if you ignore the parable aspect of the story (which is just designed to reassure people no matter what you’ll always be welcomed back into the fold), it’s clear there’s a favorite. And in this show, Malcom is clearly the favorite. We find out, at the end of the pilot, that Malcom is the one who called the cops and got his dad caught. Through flashbacks we discover that up until his graduating year of college (assumedly) he’d been visiting his dad in prison. But, upon revealing that he’s joining the FBI, and subsequently abandoning his dad to rot in jail, it becomes obvious just how much Dr. Martin Whitly has missed his beloved son. Hell, it’s hinted at (basically just outright said and confirmed) that Martin orchestrates the pilot killer’s existence in order to lure his son back to his cell.

Outside of the bible story skeleton, the rest of the show is set up as your run of the mill monster-of-the-week procedural. Complete with quirky (though not visually and I have to say it’s a relief) M.E. Dr. Edrisa Guilfoyle (Gilmore Girls alum Keiko Agena), loving father-figure fill-in Gil Arroyo (Hi, Lou Diamond Phillips, we’ve missed you!), skeptic hard-nosed detective JT Tarmel (Frank Harts), and equally hard-nosed yet still a potential love-interest detective Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau). It also plays out as such. The colors are muted, “The Surgeon” (psycho Mr. Rogers’ cool serial killer name) is a living legend, and somehow a person with Malcom’s background and psychological profile has only just now been fired from the FBI. 10 years! He somehow managed to spend 10 years working for them without enough of an incident to get fired!? Seriously!?

But what if that’s no accident? Serial killers are notorious for hiding in plain sight. Is that perhaps another layer to this show? For a pilot, Prodigal Son is pretty heavy-handed yet not without real potential. My rule has always been to give a show three episodes. Never judge a show on the pilot. If, after three episodes you’re still not into it, then move on. Don’t get me wrong, some shows have a rough first season, but even they were largely watchable after the first three offerings. I’ll be giving Prodigal Son its due.

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