Anthony Hopkins’ indelible performance as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) casts a suffocating shadow on “Prodigal Son” — which borrows from “The Silence of the Lambs” playbook yet lacks that movie’s creepiness/horror factor.
It’s not even close. Welcome to network TV.
And that’s too bad, since acclaimed actor Michael Sheen (“Masters of Sex,” “Frost/Nixon”) is mostly wasted here in the Lecter-type role as Dr. Martin Whitly, a cardiothoracic surgeon/serial killer dubbed “The Surgeon.” Arrested in 1998 and suspected of murdering at least 23 victims, Whitly now passes his time in a lavishly adorned cell (complete with library, TV set, desk, etc.) in a psychiatric hospital — where, in a head-scratcher, he still sees patients while tethered to the wall with a rope around his waist.
Wrap your head around that one.
In the series premiere, set in the present day, we meet Whitly’s emotionally damaged son, requisitely stubbled FBI agent Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne). It was Malcolm who, as a young boy, dropped a dime on his father after discovering the Surgeon’s evil basement lair — which may or may not have contained a female victim. Bright has changed his surname and is now working for the government in a bid to escape his father’s evil shadow. But it hasn’t helped; he self-medicates with various prescription drugs and suffers from night terrors, shackling himself to his bed each night and wearing a scary-looking mouth guard so he won’t harm anyone.
In short order, Malcolm is fired from the FBI after slugging a sheriff and ends up working as a “forensic profiler” for the NYPD, recruited there by Det. Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips) — who arrested the Surgeon in 1998 and has kept in touch with Malcolm since that fateful night. Malcolm hasn’t seen Whitly in 10 years, yet finds himself drawn back to dear old Dad, who says he can help Malcolm get inside the heads of the serial killers he’s pursuing (akin to Clarice Starling’s talks with Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs”).
That’s the essential template of “Prodigal Son,” with some collateral characters thrown into the mix, including Malcolm’s socialite mother, Jessica Whitly (Bellamy Young, “Scandal”); his younger sister, Ainsley (Halston Sage), a TV reporter; and Arroyo’s sidekicks, cops Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau) and JT Tarmel (Frank Harts).
It’s a standard-issue, formulaic drama that never quite kicks into gear, and I can’t help but think that “Prodigal Son” could have been much more riveting, given its subject matter and the presence of Sheen. He doesn’t have enough to do, but he has his moments and gets the juiciest lines: “We talk about murder the way most people talk about sports,” he says to Malcolm; in another scene, he tells Malcolm “you’re sounding a bit judgy.”
Payne’s, well, pain, as Malcolm doesn’t quite resonate, at least not yet — but Young’s character could get a lot more interesting if the end of Episode 2 is any indication. But you’ll need to get that far into the show to find out for yourself.
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