Fox needs to renew Prodigal Son. That’s all there is to it. Sure, there are several shows on the bubble this season. However, this is one of the shows we’re pulling for the most. What is it about Prodigal Son that makes it so worthy of renewal?
Any really good show starts with the characters. And characters are one thing that this series does really well. They’re all complex, with more going on under the surface than is immediately apparent to the audience.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with Tom Payne’s Malcolm Bright, the titular protagonist. To say that he struggles with inner demons would be an understatement. Heck, he has to chain himself to his bed every night due to the force of his night terrors. He suffers from occasional delusions – specifically of his serial killer father. He struggles with the fear that he might follow in his dad’s footsteps one day – and has pushed that envelope more than once. In fact, he pushes a lot of envelopes, doing things that no other person would do. Or even should do. Morally or legally.
But while Malcolm may be the main character, it’s really the supporting characters that often make a show what it is. After all, one person can’t carry a series alone. And the supporting characters in Prodigal Son provide both a grounding and exacerbating influence on Malcolm, while making the show as compelling as it is.
Most notable is Dr. Martin Whitly, Malcolm’s father. Charming, funny, and clever, he’s part fascinating and part hilarious to watch. He’s also a serial killer, the Surgeon, but nobody’s perfect. He’s a complicated character, both to play and undoubtedly to write – a combination of narcissistic sociopath and loving father. Maybe he doesn’t experience emotion in the same way as other people, but there’s no doubt that he…feels something for his son. Is it love in the way most people would define it? Probably not. But it’s…something.
Then there’s Jessica (Bellamy Young) and Ainsley (Halston Sage), Malcolm’s mother and sister respectively. I’ll be honest. If you’d asked me in the first season which characters were perhaps the least compelling, I might have said Jessica, and I definitely would have said Ainsley. But, boy, would I have been wrong. These two perfectly exemplify how there is more going on under the hood with this show than first meets the eye.
Jessica comes across at first as the sort of typical overbearing socialite mother, often depicted on certain types of television shows. A little too attached to alcohol and drugs. A little too attached to meddling in her children’s lives. I didn’t dislike her, but I took her more or less at face value. But over time, the truth about Jessica came to light. She’s a woman who struggles with demons of her own. She genuinely loved her husband, Martin. She believed him. If she suspected anything about him, it was an affair – not that he had a woman held captive in a box in their basement. (To be fair, who would assume that?) She was born a socialite, but she lost her reputation and social standing when the Surgeon was unmasked. Now, ostracized from the world into which she was born, she holds desperately to their family, desperate to protect them as best she can. From the world, yes, but mostly from their father. Her children really are all she has left, but her trials have given her an inner strength that even she doesn’t necessarily see.
Meanwhile, throughout most of the first season, Ainsley seemed the most…it’s hard to say “normal” member of the Whitly family, but certainly the least damaged. She was perhaps a little too career-driven. Even somewhat ruthless in the pursuit of what she wanted. But she wasn’t having Malcolm’s night terrors, and she wasn’t losing herself in alcohol and pills like Jessica. She also was quite young when Martin was arrested, so she seemed like the one member of the family her father didn’t corrupt. By the end of the first season, however…well, needless to say, it was clear that first impression was not an accurate one.
The cast is rounded out with Malcolm’s coworkers, who are responsible for the “stabilizing” influence of the show. Even as they investigate the murder of the week. Lieutenant Gil Arroyo has a more paternal relationship with Malcolm than his father does (understandably). He’s also the officer that’s responsible for capturing the Surgeon. Detective Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau) is Malcolm’s co-worker and potential love interest. If only that pesky “cover-up of a murder” didn’t keep getting in the way. Detective JT Tarmel (Frank Harts) is probably the coworker with the most grounded sense of “are you kidding me with this?” when it comes to Malcolm’s antics. And Dr. Edrisa Tanaka (Keiko Agena) is the…we’ll say “quirky” medical examiner.
Each of these characters brings something special to the show. Each one of them is complex and compelling, and Fox needs to renew the series so that we can see more of them.
Prodigal Son isn’t exactly a “shipping” show. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any relationships worth shipping. There are two, in fact: Malcolm/Dani and Gil/Jessica. Both are complicated by the lingering impact of the Surgeon on his family’s lives. And, again, the fact they both are aware of and have been covering up a murder. Even, for one of them, disposing of the body.
But while we can’t help but root for these ships, it really isn’t the romantic relationships that keeps this show going. The ships aren’t even necessarily the most compelling relationships on the show. It’s the dynamics between the characters that keep us tuning in from week to week.
Malcolm and Martin is probably the relationship that gets the deepest dive, if not the most screen time. And their dynamic certainly is interesting. If Malcolm is afraid of being like the Surgeon, it’s because his father is intentionally stoking that fire. It does make one wonder how much he’d wrestle with this particular demon if it wasn’t for his father’s voice in his ear. He’d undoubtedly still do it. But to the same extent? It’s impossible to know.
The dichotomy of this is the relationship between Malcolm and Gil. Gil isn’t Malcolm’s dad, but the father/son dynamic still exists between them. Possibly both mildly complicated by or assisted by the feelings Gil and Jessica clearly feel for each other.
And, just as there’s the push/pull of Malcolm and Martin, there’s a push/pull with Martin and the other members of his family. Jessica, who hates him for who he is, what he has done to her children, and the influence he can still wield over them. And yet who once loved him and still occasionally needs his help to protect the very children he warped into being who they are today. Ainsley, who was too young to have many memories of her father, and who longs on some level to get to know him better now. But who is also perhaps a bit more like him than any member of the Whitly family ever suspected.
There are also the complicated dynamics between Malcolm and his coworkers – who believe in his abilities and know him to be a good person. And yet, they recognize that he is a person who’s always teetering on the brink. They don’t always agree with his methods (nor, it must be said, should they). And they occasionally are confronted with the realization that getting close to Malcolm – or any member of his family – isn’t exactly a straightforward concept. They may not be “cursed,” but getting close to them does seem to make it more likely to become collateral damage.
Each of the interpersonal dynamics on the show is complicated and messy, but it rarely if ever feels as if it’s forced to be so. The push/pull dynamics feel real. Yes, of course Malcolm, Jessica, and Ainsley would hate Martin for who he ended up being and for what he put them through. But they’d also remember the person they thought he was – the person part of him may well have genuinely been. And, at the end of the day, he’s still their father and ex-husband, and so it’s impossible to completely cut off those feelings. Or the longing for the person they wished he had genuinely been.
Similarly, while many shows make “will they/won’t they” romantic tension feel contrived at a certain point, that isn’t an issue in this series. The dynamic still exists, for sure. But for many shows, the entire complicated situation could be resolved with something as simple as a conversation. They will; they just need to talk about their feelings.
With this show, it’s not so simple. It isn’t just a reluctance to share that’s keeping Malcolm and Dani, or Gil and Jessica, apart. It’s the lingering presence of the Surgeon in their lives. The night terrors Malcolm still lives with, which can legitimately be a danger to anyone who shares a bed with him (as we saw in season one). It’s the alienation that comes from having been related or married to a serial killer. And, oh yes, it’s the awareness that Martin isn’t the only killer in the family, and that each one of them is responsible for covering up a crime that neither Gil nor Dani would be likely – or able – to condone.
There are, by my estimation, approximately a bajillion police procedurals on television. Honestly, it’s hard for a show in that genre to bring anything new to the table anymore. But Prodigal Son isn’t really a police procedural, even if that’s the framework they use to structure the weekly episodes. The weekly murders really aren’t the point. Neither is how the characters solve them, although they do give the writers a chance to let Malcolm stretch his legs and have fun a little, demonstrating his profiling abilities.
The weekly murders are often interesting, but they aren’t what keeps me watching. It’s everything else about the show that makes it worthwhile. For a series that can be a bit dark, to say the least, the writers manage to do a good job of balancing dramatic tension and humor. We don’t just want to see what happens with these characters. We like them. Even the Surgeon. You wouldn’t want to have him over for tea, necessarily, but it’s hard not to like him. Or at least to see what first drew Jessica to him in the first place. And what it is about him now that pulls his children back to him, even when they try to break away.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the show also does suspense really well. This week’s episode, “Exit Strategy,” was the payoff of a storyline that has been building most of the season. Nothing that happened in the episode was really that surprising, given that the foundation had been well-laid in previous episodes. And yet, even while the ending of the episode was something of a given, I could not tear my attention away. Even in a story that they had been building to all season, the suspense in the episode itself was gripping. And knowing the likely payoff did nothing to diminish it. Also, there were a couple of unexpected moments, such as Jessica showing why you do not mess with her.
All of this combines to make a series that is honestly one of the best shows on television. Prodigal Son deserves a season 3, and Fox needs to give it to them, already.
Prodigal Son airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox.