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‘Prodigal Son’ Is One of the Most Bonkers Shows on TV—but It Still Has Heart

The Fox show is full of quippy lines, serial killers, and plenty of childhood trauma. But it gets its spirit from Lou Diamond Phillips and the makeshift family his character creates.

FOX/Ringer illustration

Last fall, a friend tried to talk me into watching Fox’s new crime drama, Prodigal Son. Ordinarily, I’d be inclined to oblige, as the show deals with subject matter near and dear to my heart: detectives trying to understand unhinged mass murderers and bring them to justice. I will watch almost anything about cops and serial killers; I not only gulped down both seasons of Netflix’s Mindhunter in less than 48 hours each, I chased Season 1 with Discovery Channel’s forgettable Manhunt: Unabomber. Sometimes, when I have trouble sleeping, I put on The Silence of the Lambs. And as Prodigal Son features a dynamite cast that includes Michael Sheen, Bellamy Young, and Lou Diamond Phillips, it could not possibly have been more up my alley.

And yet, I resisted. During Fox’s coverage of the MLB playoffs, I’d been bombarded with promos for Prodigal Son—which premiered in September—and it looked like the most ridiculous thing on television, particularly considering that most network detective dramas are episodic paint-by-numbers affairs that beg to be half-ignored during syndication. Prodigal Son centers on disgraced former FBI profiler Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne); he’s the son of heiress Jessica Whitly (Young) and surgeon Martin Whitly (Sheen), who is currently serving a life prison sentence for murdering more than 20 people. As a result of the kind of childhood trauma one might suffer from being the son of a serial killer, Bright experiences night terrors that force him to sleep in restraints, when he sleeps at all. And it’s all shot in the same washed-out blue-gray light that characterizes winter in New York, but also the films of David Fincher.

Eventually, though, after weeks of being pestered, hectored, and cajoled, I gave in. What I found didn’t transcend the network murder drama so much as it sprinkled on some chili powder and then set the whole thing on fire.

“A lot of writers will claim that they have a fresh take on this or they’re coming at it from a different angle, but this product really is a hybrid,” Phillips, who plays NYPD lieutenant Gil Arroyo, told me in a phone interview this week. “It’s a network show that has some streaming and cable sensibilities about it. It’s edgy, and it aspires to a real cinematic feel; I think it’s unabashedly an homage to films like Se7en or even Silence of the Lambs.”

Prodigal Son is unflinchingly violent and saturated with repartee. And it’s also just as bonkers as it says on the packaging. In the very first episode, Bright and his partners stumble upon a man strapped to a time bomb. Bright frees the man by chopping off his hand with an axe, then, after escaping with the severed appendage in a cooler, marches toward a waiting ambulance and says, “I’ve got to give them a hand.” Several episodes later, Bright questions the same man at a shop that sells bondage gear, as part of an investigation into an exclusive swingers’ club for the elite. It’s probably not possible for a network procedural to be the most ridiculous thing on a television schedule that includes The New Pope, cable news punditry, and the New York Knicks, but it’s up there.

Even so, Prodigal Son comes by its melodramatic and transgressive elements honestly. Its edginess, violence, and dark humor are so direct, delivered without a trace of irony, that the show is endearingly guileless. That quality comes through particularly in the relationship between Bright and his mentor, Arroyo, which is so caring and honest it almost makes the show wholesome.

“[Prodigal Son has] this twisted, dark sense of humor, but it’s because we have intelligent characters that can be quippy without being too much in on the joke,” Phillips says. “We don’t wink at the audience. These are just clever people saying clever things, and there’s a great energy there.”

Gil Arroyo is the one point of stability in this gleefully chaotic world. The show’s title emphasizes Bright’s relationship with his father, whom Sheen plays with the wide-eyed, aggressive cockiness he brought to The Damned United filtered through the physical presence of a wooly Hannibal Lecter. But as Prodigal Son has progressed, Gil has emerged as an aspirational TV dad.

“The thing I got from Gil right away was this sense of him being a papa bear,” Phillips says. “He’s so paternal. And it’s obvious with Malcolm Bright, but also with the rest of his team.”

While murder and mayhem unfold around Prodigal Son’s New York City, Gil radiates a presence of safety. Almost every other character on the show is constantly on the verge of crying, screaming, or throwing their hands up in frustration. (From the dialogue to the lighting to the costuming, consuming Prodigal Son is like eating a bag of coffee beans and then going for a ride in a paint mixer. This is not necessarily a criticism.) All of that only serves to highlight Gil’s cool demeanor by contrast.

“There’s no chip on his shoulder,” Phillips says. “He doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. … We see that when the shit hits the fan, he’s there, but the rest of the time he’s not going to fly off the handle.”

In typical Prodigal Son fashion, there is one in-your-face element to Gil’s cool confidence, and it’s been present from the moment Phillips first read the script for the pilot. “It said his fashion sense stops with Steve McQueen in Bullitt,” says Phillips. “So I thought, ‘OK, all right. If ever there’s a touchstone, that’s it.’”

That influence shines through in the show’s styling choices. As Gil Arroyo, Phillips wears a goatee, so you know he’s cool and edgy, but with a streak of white on his chin, so you know he’s experienced and paternal. He drives a glossy, black, and hilariously impractical 1967 Pontiac Le Mans, and he wears an array of wool sweaters, blazers, and overcoats in a variety of dark colors and muted patterns.

With Bright costumed in expensive slim-fit suits and the squad’s other detectives mostly dressed in hoodies, leather jackets, and boots, Gil’s wardrobe places him at the top of the food chain while still highlighting the class difference between a career police officer and the rich wunderkind. His turtleneck sweaters and hefty overcoats are age-appropriate for a man in his late 50s—and perfect for a show that takes place in a perpetual slate-gray late autumn—but they still afford him the physical freedom to chase suspects on foot or engage in gunplay should the plot require it. (Between Prodigal Son and Knives Out, this is the Winter of Sweaters in American pop culture, and it comes not a moment too soon.)

The only thing warmer and more comforting than Arroyo’s wardrobe is his relationship with his protégé, Bright, who is by far the strangest and most unpredictable character on this strange and unpredictable show. Bright throws himself into murder cases as a way to stifle his familial trauma, and Gil—who coaxed Bright to come back to work in the pilot episode—has to balance his duty to solve cases with his sense of responsibility for Bright’s well-being.

“[Gil has] conscripted somebody that he loves into this line of work that puts him in harm’s way,” Phillips says. “Therefore it kind of pushes [Bright] out of the nest. The conflict for Gil is, you’ve got to let him do what he’s going to do, but at the same time be very, very concerned about his well-being. This is something I learned as my children were growing up: They’re going to have heartache, they’re going to face difficulty. They’re not always going to win. And you have to let them do that. The caveat is, in the world of this television show, is that you could die. So the stakes are a little higher.”

And Bright is a little more difficult to reel in than the average child. Even though he’s not particularly snotty about it, Bright carries the standard rich white man’s belief that the rules don’t apply to him. That stands in stark contrast to Gil, who’s hardly a by-the-book commander but has had to operate within the rules his entire life. In the most recent episode—a positively tame one by the standards of Prodigal Son—Bright disobeys orders to infiltrate a cult, and is evaluated by an NYPD psychiatrist after he pretends to electrocute himself and knocks out power to the entire station.

In that same episode, Gil kicks Bright out of the precinct, becoming roughly the millionth TV police supervisor to tell an unruly subordinate to turn in his metaphorical badge and gun. But rather than blustering or shouting, Phillips delivers his line in a heartbroken stage whisper.

It’s characteristic of what makes their relationship so compelling. In contrast to the typical TV father-son dynamic, Gil and Bright operate on a basis of total trust, emotional frankness, and mutual respect. When they butt heads—which happens often—there’s never any disappointment on Gil’s part or unfulfilled desire to please on Bright’s. As complicated as their relationship can be, it’s built on a foundation of caring, which warms my heart like a well-fitting turtleneck sweater.

Lucky for the show, the healthy, happy relationship between Gil and Bright is the exception. Bright’s real parents—the serial killer dad and the high-strung, perpetually day-drunk mom—are delightful televisual presences, even if it’s easy to see why their son grew up to be a self-destructive insomniac. And after half a season, it makes sense that the early trailers made it look like Prodigal Son’s primary relationship would be between Bright and Martin, not Bright and Gil. The most bonkers show on television is a pretty straightforward sell, even if the show’s greatest strength is its heartfelt depiction of an unorthodox and improvised family.