Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: September 23, 2019 (FOX)
Nielsen ratings information: 4.046 million viewers, 2.6/5 in Households, 1.0/4 with Adults 18-49, 0.6/4 with Adults 18-34, 1.3/5 with Adults 25-54
FOX is in the fictional serialkiller business again, because this network believes it can only tell stories about people who went to Hell and came back. The network is certainly trying to test the limits of broadcasting standards, even if this episode was anything but heavy on the violence and serialkilling. After all, the most brutal moment of the episode was the shooting of the serial killer of the episode, who was gunned down by two bullets. For a television show about serialkillers, this episode definitely didn’t bring any blood or showcased more than severed heads in a few jars filled with liquids. I have never seen more than the pilot of NBC’s HANNIBAL (shame on me, I guess), but even that episode was more violent than this offering that apparently tries to steal the best of both worlds from HANNIBAL and THE FOLLOWING, serving the audience yet another crime procedural with weird characters who carry the term “acquired taste” a little too heavy.
It makes this pilot episode almost identical to all the other serialkiller thriller dramas on television, especially when Michael Sheen didn’t manage to find his own way of portraying a serialkiller and instead remained in the field of what’s to be expected from a fictional murderer with a fable for killing victims exquisitely. Martin is so full of himself as the greatest serialkiller of 1998’s New York that he always smiles when seeing or talking to his son, and Malcolm is so full of himself as the expert profiler and NYPD consultant that he thinks he’s allowed to behave like a lunatic at the scene of the crime, or talk like he already knows all the answers to the detectives’ questions, but decides to wait to give them because he likes to play games that are all about superiority. Those character elements make Martin and Malcolm cliched characters in the serialkiller thriller genre, making PRODIGAL SON a television show that likes to get its hand dirty in the treasure box of tropes. And in the meantime, the show is like any other crime procedural on the market: A murder case needs to be solved, so a team of detectives are on the way to catch the killer before they can murder their next victim. THE FOLLOWING, which was a show I hated, at least had an intriguing cult premise running in the background, but PRODIGAL SON does not have that, which essentially makes it just another crime drama — which happens to have a serialkiller as a central character. It’s almost like DEXTER, but Dexter is actually a supervillain who kills for the fun and excitement of it and has already been captured. The only thing this version of Dexter is waiting now is the inevitable escape from the mental institution. Because really, you know that is going to come sooner or later. THE FOLLOWING, the show I hated, managed to deliver that escape in the pilot episode.
Malcolm is the typical character who is the son of a convicted serialkiller who thinks he is the creepiest in town, just because he is happy to see his son whenever he comes by to visit. I get that the child of a convicted and legendary serialkiller is not an interesting character for a television show when said child isn’t haunted by the demons and nightmares of the murdering parent’s past, but I would have hoped that PRODIGAL SON would tackle the story a little differently and make something unique or worthwhile about the story. Not having seen more than one hour of HANNIBAL, even I was thinking that Will was on the edge of becoming a serialkiller himself (the characteristic tendencies were definitely there), so I don’t even need to assume that the writers of this very show have at least argued in the writers room about whether or not to make a serialkiller out of Malcolm as well. You might get in trouble with fans of DEXTER, who will definitely target your jugular for stealing the premise of the beloved Showtime drama, but it’s not that far-fetched to believe that Malcolm is more than just the “acquired taste” for the New York Police Homicide Department, and that the potential for going down the more bloody route is an option, just for the writers to chicken out at the end and remain in the crime drama business. One way to prevent the writers from turning Malcolm into a killer himself is to have his father escape and start a new spree of murders, just so an entire season of serialkilling television can be turned into a manhunt.
The rest of the character pool barely got color throughout the episode. There are the usual detective characters who are with the main hero of the story and help him solve the case, and there is the usual writing of the crime drama pilot that does not give a damn about the characters beyond the central detective or investigator or consultant, since it’s going to be all about them. If the viewers don’t remember the names of the other characters 30 minutes after the episode ended, then maybe there is a problem with the writing. But then I ask myself the question if we are even supposed to care about the other detectives, and if the answer to that question is an astounding “No,” then why are they part of the narrative? PRODIGAL SON suffers like any other crime procedural on broadcast television, but because of the serialkiller angle, the writers believed to have tapped into something more unique. Unfortunately for the writers, the serialkiller angle is not new any longer (how can it be with more than a hundred crime drama shows on broadcast TV since the premiere of CSI?), and you gotta have really good casting to level out that disadvantage. And while I believe that Michael Sheen is a good casting choice for the villainous role, it’s not like he has been the greatest catch casting-wise during the 2019/2020 pilot season.