It's kinda weird how shows about serial killers can feel like a pleasant place of escape sometimes, no? Such was the case with Mindhunter, which managed to avoid being a parody project and instead offered incisive character studies of its complicated heroes, and such is the case with Prodigal Son, Fox's newest crime procedural that has a delicious twist: Our titular hero Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne) is a brainy, frenetic serial killer profiler who also happens to be the son of one of New York's most infamous murderers, Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), aka The Surgeon.
When we first meet Malcolm Bright, it is decidedly not his finest hour. Although he successfully tracks down a literal butcher before he can slaughter his next batch of hostages, Malcolm also punches a police chief for shooting the perp instead of letting Malcolm talk him down — which, to be fair, he was almost able to do. He subsequently gets canned by the FBI, but it's not just this violent escapade that earns Malcolm his walking papers; his bosses also fear that he might be exhibiting some of his father's, uh, impulse control issues. Considering he has to chain himself to his bed each night on account of his very violent night terrors, they might be onto something.
Malcolm is quickly scooped up by the NYPD because he has a long, storied history with a detective named Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips). For Gil, Malcolm's eccentricities are excusable because he knows Bright from way back in the day (the specifics of their connection are revealed late in the episode). He knows Malcolm is a bit unstable, but he also feels certain that he's still one of the good guys. We'll have to wait and see whether Gil's instincts about Malcolm are correct, but Malcolm's sister Ainsley (Halston Sage) and mother Jessica (Bellamy Young) would rather he get out of the murder business all together for his mental health's sake.
Whether or not his line of work is advisable, Bright's new surname is quite appropriate for him. Not only is his on-the-spot intellect conveniently boundless, but he's also got heaping blue eyes that glisten with intense giddiness every time he starts poring over the hideous details of any given crime scene. He's fascinated by the mental workings of the mellifluous mind, thanks in no small part to the fact that he has a lot of unanswerable questions about why his father did all of the grisly things that he did.
The first three episodes of Prodigal Son parse out of Malcolm's conflicted relationship with his father. Dr. Whitly's crimes are unspeakable, sure, but he presents himself as a peach. And somehow funny? Michael Sheen is dancing with light feet in this role, clearly having a blast playing a serial killer who is at once a duplicitous menace and a charming conversationalist. And he really does give Martin the air of caring deeply about his son in his own wild, and often controlling, way. Meanwhile, Tom Payne is nimble at slipping into pockets of pure mania before bouncing right back into his whip-smart profiler boots. Like his dad, Malcolm has some demons that he's having a devil of a time keeping at bay. Together, they are magnetic as their conversations are filled with gamesmanship. We're left to wonder which of these two weirdo geniuses really has the upper hand during their all-too-brief chats. It might not be good for Malcolm to spend much time with his dad, but it's sure fun for us at home when he does.
And although the series is obviously anchored by the relationship between Bright and his father (and between Bright and his ever-intrusive subconscious), a lot of creativity goes into the dastardly crimes of the week as well. Gil's tight-knit team — which also consists of detectives Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau) and JT Tarmel (Frank Harts) and medical examiner Edrisa Guilfoyle (Keiko Agena) — are brought in to investigate some exceedingly unusual murder scenes, and it's clear that we're not going to be dealing with any traditional homicide scenarios in this series. The common thread running between each of the wildly different murders at hand is that, in each case, it's not fingerprints or DNA analyses that will solve the case. Rather, it's Bright's ability to flesh out the killers' motives and means. Diving so deeply into the mind of these maniacs might be costly for his own psyche, though, and as we proceed, it's not hard to imagine that Bright will soon have to question his own instincts and actions. Until then, it'll be quite a thrill for the couch crowd to see this profiler genius get to the bottom of his various vicious cases, and, as a bonus, the sordid family dynamics at play will make that sure-to-be-awkward Thanksgiving dinner with your backward Uncle Jeff seem cake by comparison.
Prodigal Son premieres on Monday, Sept. 23 at 9/8c on Fox.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5