Darkness on network TV can feel a bit by-the-book; in order to impress us with how edgy they’re able to be within stricter boundaries than cable and streaming, dramas lard on violence and evil that can feel a bit unmotivated. Which is why “Prodigal Son,” a new Fox drama, is in its first three episodes a pleasant surprise: Its central serial killer underplays his viciousness.
That’s Michael Sheen, the accomplished Welsh actor, playing Dr. Martin Whitly; though I’d be unsurprised if he broke out for sweeps, he is in the show’s early going already imprisoned, and for years at that. The show’s drama and tension comes not from whether or not he’ll be caught but from what impact he has on his son (Tom Payne), a profiler who consults with the NYPD to help find and bring to justice killers. (He was brought into the fold, despite a connection he works to keep under wraps, after as a child having saved the life of one of his father’s chosen victims, played by Lou Diamond Phillips.) That son, Malcolm, comes to rely, after years of estrangement, on his father’s understanding of the criminal psyche, even as renewed contact with the man whose evil still gives Malcolm uncontrollable night terrors renews, too, trauma and stress. We wonder, more than once in the show’s early going, if Malcolm has perhaps inherited more than bad moods from his father.
Certain touches of the series felt excessive: A set piece in which snakes crawl out of a cadaver suggested that if one does not have the resources or sensibility of NBC’s “Hannibal,” it’s better to try something different. But performances carry the day, here: Payne is edgy and hopped-up as a young man in a perpetual state of ultra-anxiety, and (though far too young for the part) Bellamy Young makes a welcome return to television post-”Scandal” as Malcolm’s mother, a social climber who has pushed past her association with a murderer and wishes her son would too. At the show’s center, Sheen cleverly carries off a character with all the urbane wit of Hannibal Lecter, but evil buried further under the surface. He doesn’t kill because, as in Lecter’s case, it’s an amusing game that proves his superiority. He kills because he is governed by forces he cannot understand or control. The show, though, is completely in control, deploying Sheen carefully, well, and never too much. It’s a program that provides a creepy jolt while never reveling in darkness for its sake — perpetually asking what it takes, and what it means, to take control of the potential for evil in oneself, and to each day beat it back.
“Prodigal Son.” Fox. Sept. 23. Three episodes screened for review.
Cast: Tom Payne, Michael Sheen, Bellamy Young, Lou Diamond Phillips, Halston Sage, Aurora Perrineau, Frank Harts, Keiko Agena.
Executive Producers: Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Chris Fedak, Sam Sklaver.