Wouldn’t it be more fun to call it Masters of Serial Killing? Michael Sheen stars in Fox’s new murder procedural drama Prodigal Son, and his presence is basically the only thing to recommend about the show.
Sheen plays Dr. Martin Whitly, a prominent surgeon among New York’s upper class elite, and also a notorious serial killer (rather unimaginatively dubbed “The Surgeon”) responsible for a string of gruesome murders. The show’s pilot episode opens with a flashback to 1998, in which Martin says goodbye to his young son before being hauled away by police. The creepy, overly-sweet and loving demeanor he puts on for the boy is more enough to flag him as a psycho right from our first glimpse of him.
Cut to the present day. The boy, Malcolm, is all grown up (now played by Tom Payne, late of The Walking Dead) and works as a profiler for the FBI. It seems that being raised by a serial killer made him pretty good at identifying others. It’s also given him a host of quirky personality issues. He’s reckless and flippant, suffers night terrors and occasional delusions, and has hand tremors – all of which is screenwriter shorthand for “Dude’s kind of messed up in the head.” On his first case, he successfully catches a serial killer and just about talks the man into surrendering, until the police sheriff he’s working with comes in guns blazing and kills the guy. Malcolm punches out the sheriff for that, and winds up booted out of the FBI.
Not to worry, his friend Gil (Lou Diamond Phillips) is an NYPD detective who recruits him to consult on a new string of murders. Using Sherlock Holmes-ian hyper-awareness and deductive powers, Malcolm quickly recognizes that the new killer is a copycat recreating his father’s crimes.
Malcolm used to visit his father in prison all the time, but stopped and cut off all contact ten years ago. His pill-popping mother (Bellamy Young from Scandal) repeatedly warns him not to re-establish that relationship. Of course, we wouldn’t have a TV show if he listened. Malcolm makes a stop at his father’s amazingly well-appointed prison cell to discuss the case. Because that worked out so great in The Silence of the Lambs.
Creepy as ever, Martin is very happy to see his son, and gives one of those classic “We’re the same, you and I” villain speeches. Malcolm accuses him of secretly helping the copycat, but Martin denies it. Believing the copycat to be one of his father’s patients (the episode very confusingly suggests that Martin is still somehow actively practicing medicine even from prison), Malcolm goes through his files and instantaneously narrows the suspect pool down to two choices. He threatens to never visit his father again unless Martin tells him which one is more likely to be the killer.
Martin points him to a wealthy businessman named Carter Berkhead (Michael Cerveris) who’s in the same social circle as Malcolm’s mother. It seems that Berkhead is into BDSM, but not so into his wife practicing it with other people, and that somehow triggered him to become a serial killer. (The explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense.) Anyway, in the process of apprehending him, Berkhead captures the cop Malcolm is partnered with and nearly kills her, until Malcolm outs himself as the son of his idol, The Surgeon, and offers himself up as a better victim, spouting some gibberish about how the son deserves to be punished for the sins of the father or somesuch. Miraculously, Gil gets there just in time to shoot Berkhead and save Malcolm.
When his team are kind of pissed that Gil never told them that the profiler he hired is the son of a serial killer, Gil explains that it was young Malcolm who tipped off the police that his father was a killer, and he was the cop who made the arrest. They’ve been close ever since.
Malcolm returns to his father’s cell and accuses him of orchestrating the entire copycat scenario as an elaborate scheme to bring him back into his life. Martin denies it, but also kind of doesn’t. He says that he really wants to be his son’s mentor, and offers himself as a consultant to help him solve crimes.
That sounds like a remarkably terrible idea… which of course means that it’s exactly what’s going to happen in every single episode of this show.
Episode Verdict / Grade: C
Michael Sheen is clearly having some fun playing a serial killer. He’s delightfully creepy, and the Mister Rogers sweater he wears in the flashbacks is hilarious. At the same time, it’s a very over-the-top, showboating performance in a TV series inundated with quirky characters and tons of quippy dialogue. The whole thing feels utterly false and ridiculous and stupid. I see no need to watch any further.