Prodigal Son has been an interesting watch after the first five episodes. For those keeping track from the Pilot debuting on September 23 through The Trip on October 21. This show clearly has potential. For those of you who don’t aren’t conversant with exact definition of the word “potential” as I use it, potential was best summed up by long-time Cubs announcer Harry Caray. Paraphrasing from a Cubs broadcast from the summer of 1984, Caray said, “Potential is a French word meaning you haven’t done crap yet.” That’s actually a very versatile phrase. If you can manage a passable Harry Caray impression, you’ll wow people at work or even at parties.
Prodigal Son has a very unique storyline for a network TV show. There are volumes of police dramas, but having Malcolm Bright (the series lead, played by Tom Payne) be the son of a very famous serial killer? That’s new! Add to this the fact that Bright has to deal with traumatic psychological events from his past that are intimately connected to his father’s killing spree makes it a complicated relationship between father and son. His personal life is a wreck resulting from multiple medication related challenges. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it would be fair for one to raise objections that there a few parallels to Hannibal Lector’s movie relationship with Will Graham. But, making Prodigal Son a “family affair” leads to a wide array of plot lines that Thomas Harris’ work hasn’t dealt with.
Michael Sheen (an actor known for a wide variety of roles in both television and movies, most recently seen in the Amazon Prime series Good Omens) plays the serial killer father, Dr. Martin Whitly. Sheen plays this role with energy and provides us a thoughtful antagonist who appears to be much smarter than anyone else in the room. At the same time, it’s clear he struggles with control when he doesn’t get his way. I’d like to see him onscreen more often but when you’re chained to a wall inside of a prison cell, that limits the narrative paths the show can take when he’s onscreen. They’ve used flashbacks to show earlier times in Whitly’s life. At least, we can hope for more screen time for Sheen.
Lou Diamond Phillips (an actor most famous for a couple of movies from the late 80s – La Bamba and Young Guns) has surprised me in his role as Lieutenant Gil Arroyo of the NYPD. He brings Malcolm in as a consultant to the department when Bright’s FBI profiling career runs aground. Phillips brings nuanced emotions to the role when a heavier hand wouldn’t work well. It’s clear that Arroyo has his own agenda at times, but he has a soft spot for Bright’s character. The soft spot is created by the fact that he was the arresting officer of Whitly. While this isn’t the actor’s fault, at times I feel the whole entertainment world has been infected by Star Wars. The scenario where one family generationally is in the middle of everything happening in the story (in Star Wars the story involves a whole galaxy which is quite hard to believe). The simple connection between Whitly and Arroyo makes their relationship easy to define and describe, but it does seem to be too coincidental for my own tastes.
Frank Harts (who plays Detective JT Tarmel) was cast as the tough guy who has a funny side. Harts executes his role with flying colors. His comedic timing is excellent. It’s clear Harts knows how to using pacing and pauses to make his comments funnier than written. He also backs up the humor with excellent facial expressions. As the character gets fleshed out in more detail, I expect Harts (another native Illinoisan like myself) to become a character that folks will look forward to seeing on screen in larger chunks of time. I liken him to Star Trek the Next Generation’s Lieutenant Commander Data (played by Brent Spiner) who became more popular as writers added more and more layers to his role.
Ages of the Cast. This is a rare objection, but the ages of the characters aren’t quite right when performing an eye test. Tom Payne looks too old to be the son of Jessica Whitly (his mother, played by Bellamy Young) unless she got pregnant at 12-ish. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it’s certainly not probable - especially in this reality where she is married to a doctor. This is a combination of Bellamy Young looking more youthful than her age (which is probably nice for anyone to read about themselves) but it does stretch believability. To make it even more problematic, Halston Sage (who plays Malcolm’s younger sister, Ainsley Whitly) is around 10 years younger than Tom Payne. Their dynamic as two kids who grew up together is dicey at best. This is not the fault of the actors and actresses, but casting someone in Tom Payne’s role who was a decade younger or gifted with an eternal baby face would’ve made more sense. In fairness, the age of the original choice for Malcolm Bright (Finn Jones) worked better for the rest of the cast. Jones is 6 years younger than Payne, and he would’ve visually been a superior fit. Reportedly, Jones was replaced after the first table read. Having not been a fan of Jones in his lead role of Iron Fist, I would’ve taken Payne over Jones – regardless of the age-related challenges.
Bad Guy of the Week formula feels forced and repetitive. In the era of Netflix, HBO, and even network offerings that have more of a serial narrative style, the catching the bad guy at the end of every episode seems almost trite. Either Malcolm is the greatest crime solver of all time, catching folks every time he jumps on a case, or the NYPD consists of masses of idiots with badges who need help from anyone to get a crime solved. This has to change to unlock the real potential of the characters.
Prodigal Son is in dire need of implementing a season-long storyline. If not that, then at least moving to a fall “season” and a spring “season” resulting in two extended stories during the full television season. Going to either two “mini-seasons” or one massive season-long arc allows the writers to increase the complexity of the criminals, add dimension and depth to the criminal plots, and increase the deduction and work required from the protagonists to stop these criminals.
To not do this would be to be stuck in the “kryptonite freak of the week” repeating loop that captured both Smallville in its early seasons and was repeated by The Flash with its “lame super person of the week” plots from its early era. Both shows improved dramatically when they started to focus on having a season-long bad guys pulling the strings behind the scenes.
If I were looking for a network television drama template to emulate, I’d go back to The Following. This Fox show featured Kevin Bacon’s flawed hero going up against James Purefoy’s uber-menacing antagonist. These shows built up suspense over the course of a season and paid off at year end.
The Blacklist was another show that chose a different direction as it was structured as a “fall season” and an accompanying “spring season”. This meant they had two cliffhangers – one in December and one in April. The Blacklist found a way to avoid the standard structure of network television.
Either approach would work to elevate the tension, more fully round out characters and antagonists, and allow for more complex plot lines that would illustrate the intellectual capabilities of the characters – particularly Malcolm and his serial killer dad. By moving to a longer story arc structure, the Prodigal Son would move past a show with great potential to one that could live up to its full potential.
Show Grade: B-/C+
Show Potential A-/B+
We shall see where the producers choose to take this show. It’s already a ratings success, can it be a ratings powerhouse that sets the bar for future crime dramas? Only time will tell.