Imagine, just for a moment, that Hannibal Lecter was Will Graham’s father. That’s the quick and dirty breakdown of FOX’s new serial killer caper Prodigal Son, which features Good Omens’ Michael Sheen as captured serial murderer Dr. Martin Whitly – aka “The Surgeon” – and The Walking Dead’s Tom Payne as his tortured profiler son, Malcolm, who may have inherited his father’s darkness.One thing’s for sure, however: Malcom has a gift that allows him to think like a maniac, which makes him one of the most successful serial killer catchers around. But when a new series of murders seems to emulate his father’s past patterns, Malcolm must put aside bad blood and visit his dad to – er – talk shop.
We spoke to Prodigal Son creators Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver about the design of the show being a surprising father/son bonding experience, and how, just because The Surgeon killed 23 people (yikes!), doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good father to Malcolm when he was a child.
Check out this exclusive clip from Prodigal Son’s premiere episode:
“We not only playing with the fact that, for our main character, his father was a serial killer,” Sklaver said, “but we like playing with his father being a serial killer but also being a really great dad. And when you put those two things together, for Michael Sheen’s character, Martin Whitly – aka The Surgeon – he did love his son. He was a great dad. He was always home for dinner at seven o’clock. He took Malcolm to the park on weekends. He was just also killing people.”
“Yeah, just don’t go into his hobby room,” Fedak laughed.
“The show came out of a conversation Sam and I were having where we started to talk about how our parents affect us,” Fedak added. “What if you had the worst father in the world? What if your dad was a serial killer? The story kind of exploded from there and we just fell in love with it. The audience can expect cases with outrageous murders that need to be solved, because it’s Malcolm Bright and he needs to tackle unique and crazy cases, but our secret weapon is that this is a family show. It’s really about how Jessica Whitly (Martin’s wife, played by Bellamy Young), Ainsly Whitly (Martin’s daughter, played by Halston Sage), and Malcolm Bright have survived for 20 years after Martin was revealed to be a killer.”
With Malcolm starting to talk to his dad again, what’s in it for Martin? Does he genuinely love spending time with his son or is he secretly plotting something? It’s a question the show will definitely focus on: What’s Martin’s motivation? “Is he truly capable of loving anyone,” Fedak wondered, “or is it all just a psychological simulacrum that he’s created and is playing around with? It’s fascinating for us to explore this. Martin now feels closer to his son because he’s able to share his darkest secret. He’s allowed to be himself. And Bright, from a young age, has wanted to look at all the dark and evil stuff so he can understand it. So it’s built this relationship of him going to his father to talk to him, and that’s why he understands the killer’s mind so well.”
Malcolm Bright is a tortured soul, for sure, but he’s not someone who automatically garners sympathy. Described as an “acquired taste” by his boss, Malcolm doesn’t play well with others. “It’s really incredible to do a network show where we’re talking about nature vs. nurture; where we’re talking about psychopathy; where we’re talking about all these interesting subjects,” Fedak explained. “Bright is definitely a product of Martin Whitly. He’s also the product of Jessica Whitly. And he also has a good surrogate father in the cop who saved him, Gil, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, who’s just incredible. He’s had influences from other people.”
But as Sklaver explained, Malcolm’s been influenced by others’ preconceptions about him too. “When most people find out your parent is a serial killer, they’re going to look at you differently. There’s a perception that Bright is carrying around, that he wasn’t raised by a bunch of people, but just by a notorious serial killer. It affects the people he works with; it affects the people he dates; as well as his sister and mother.”
“As a rich guy from the Upper East Side in Manhattan who’s incredibly handsome and wears expensive suits, there’s a reason why he doesn’t have a fiancé at the moment,” Fedak shared. “And that’s because of his background of being the son of the Surgeon. No one watching will want his life. It all comes back to Tom Payne and his performance. He does anguish, he does broken, he does shattered like nobody else. And he’s incredibly handsome while doing it, it’s amazing.”
“We’re rooting for a guy who, in the back of our mind, some may just wonder if he could end up being a killer too,” Sklaver explained.
Fedak and Sklaver describe Prodigal Son as being “delightfully disturbing,” adding that Michael Sheen joining the series as Martin really helped the show’s ideas gel and take shape.
“What Michael brings into the performance is not just his great depth as an actor but also he knows this tone,” Fedak said. “We can put in jokes as well as scares as well as anger all in one scene. Sometimes the same breath. And he can hit it all those marks like a master archer.”
“The jokes hit harder because you were just terrified by him,” Skalver added, “and the scares come quicker and are more unexpected because you were just disarmed by him. It really is just a superpower that only a handful of actors have.”
“The thing that had to be different about our show – because there’ve been so many charming killers in the past, in movies and TV shows – Martin Whitly had to be a good dad. And a funny dad. A good father,” Fedak shared. “Essentially a person who wants a relationship with his son. He does have his son’s best interests at heart and maybe even has the best advice for him. And so now we’re exploring how is someone’s perfect dad was revealed to be a monster.”