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Ballad of Narayama

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TV Review: FOX Looks For Their Own Hannibal in Effective Prodigal Son

Given a little more content leeway by FOX than is often allowed on network TV, “Prodigal Son” plays with some dark themes and violent imagery in ways that make it feel more streaming- or cable-ready than some of its competition. But the three episodes sent for review are already starting to show some wheel-spinning, with hackneyed dialogue and repetitive plotting keeping the show from living up to its grisly potential. Luckily, however, there’s Michael Sheen grinning menacingly to keep viewers engaged.

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The excellent actor plays Dr. Martin Whitly, an infamous serial killer also known as the “Surgeon.” Responsible for more than two dozen murders, Whitly is doing life behind several layers of security, although he’s in a relatively cushy room with a lot of personal touches for most of the show. He’s kind of like Hannibal Lecter at the beginning of “The Silence of the Lambs,” still allowed personal effects and almost admired by the guards who keep an eye on him. He’s clearly a Lecter riff—the charismatic, brilliant sociopath. And the “Silence” comparison goes a step further in the main, mystery-of-the-week structure of “Prodigal Son,” which often requires that Whitly’s twisted brain helps solve the case.

Who’s reaching out to the Surgeon? Well, that’s his son, Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), who not only bears the emotional pain of the child of a serial killer but happens to be the one who turned dear old dad in by calling the police. The responding officer that day was a man named Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips), who took Malcolm under his wing, and now turns to him for advice on catching murderers. Bright has more than a few personal demons of his own—he has to shackle himself to his bed at night because the dreams about what he saw as a child are so violent—and Payne leans into the performance, wide-eyed and fast-talking most of the time. At first, it’s a little much—imagine if Clarice was as wacky as Hannibal—but it settles in a bit in subsequent episodes, especially as Bright’s mania is balanced by a nicely stoic performance from Phillips and strong work from supporting officers like Aurora Perrineau as Dani Powell (with her work here and in a few “Into the Dark” chapters, I’m convinced she’s gonna be a star.)

Payne, Perrineau, Phillips, Bellamy Young, Frank Harts—the cast is sturdy, but “Prodigal Son” inherently suffers a bit every time that Michael Sheen isn’t on-screen. The star of “Frost/Nixon” and “The Good Fight” does a lot in only a few scenes to balance a character who is both dangerously insane and in desperate need of his son’s attention. He is somehow both devious and vulnerable in the same beat, which is no easy feat. It sometimes feels like the writers know that the show sinks a bit when he’s off-screen, and so the first three mysteries feel a bit overwritten and the dialogue often hackneyed, but I have to admit to growing accustomed even to those tendencies.

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“Prodigal Son” isn’t going to set ratings charts on fire, but it’s a solid mystery/drama after a long Monday, one that plays on our increasing obsession with serial killers and grisly murders with an engaging, talented ensemble. It may have Thomas Harris inspirations, but be warned that it's not as visually striking a show as “Hannibal,” more comfortable alternating a new mystery each week with its series-long family drama (which already feels a bit overcooked after three episodes in which Malcolm’s sister and mother alternate yelling at him about talking to dad). It reminds me most of a show like “Bones,” another FOX mystery procedural that satisfied viewers for years with some edge and a diverse, fun ensemble. Although that show didn’t have Michael Sheen.

First three episodes screened for review.

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