New Adventures in TV Land

Review of Prodigal Son, Mondays at 9pm EST on Fox

Growing up, I did not have cable television (except for when my family stayed in hotels). So the advent of Fall TV meant that there were actually new shows to watch on television every evening of the week (and not just on PBS)! Now we live in a blessed age where approximately three shows a day drop onto streaming platforms and even broadcast networks have started programming more seasonal offerings outside of the traditional September to May schedule. The result is that we’ll all likely have ten shows still on our watch lists when we ascend to the Great Big Couch in the Sky. As an avowed pop culture addict, I wouldn’t choose to live any other way. Still, I look forward every year to seeing what new offerings network television has to offer, creating a schedule of what I want to check out, and determining what I’m willing to commit to (at least for a few more weeks).

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Admittedly, there were not a huge amount of shows that intrigued me enough to watch even the pilot this year. (Optimist’s Translation: more time to watch streaming shows as they drop throughout the fall and winter.) That being said, I test drove the police procedural Prodigal Son that premiered last week.

The premise of Prodigal Son is that Malcom Bright (Tom Payne) is both a criminal profiler and the son of Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), a serial killer known as the Surgeon who was captured and incarcerated in the late 1990s. The pilot episode sees Bright working as a consultant to an NYPD case only to discover that the case is a copycat of four murders his father committed years ago.

Familiar territory? Yes, and that is one of the show’s biggest potential pitfalls. A detective/profiler/forensic pathologist with a personal connection to a killer/landmark case/crime is a trope mystery lovers have seen before in television, movies, and books. However, the police procedural format as a whole is not particularly new either and that doesn’t stop viewers from enjoying interesting characters and unusual cases. More episodes should help shed light on whether the writers are able to find new perspectives on these tropes or fail to make them work with these characters and within the particular environment they’ve created in Prodigal Son.

My other biggest concern with this show is that it too often uses shock factor to elicit viewers’ emotion rather than relying on the strength of the writing and acting without layering on gore. For example, the show’s opening scene depicts Bright entering a butchering process plant that has a series of severed heads preserved in jars in the background. Obviously, that is a horrifying concept. However, on screen I couldn’t help but think they looked like cheap Halloween masks in jars filled with goop. It certainly didn’t scare me; it just seemed hokey. Similarly, later, the director uses a tight closeup of Bright’s face screaming, eyes bugged out, after he has a nightmare about his father. This kind of in-your-face, “isn’t this scaaary?” tactic definitely backfired for me (and I’d wager for many other viewers as well). Rather than letting the storytelling and filmmaking stand on its own in evoking reactions from viewers it seems like the creators are smashing the “break open only in case of emergency” toolbox too frequently.

The show’s house style is fairly stark, relying on low-key lighting and heavy shadows and filters that seem to leach almost all color from the screen. A very minimalist color palette of creams, grays, and blacks only enhances this effect. Many shots also used shallow focus, meaning only part of the image is in focus and the rest remains blurry. To be fair, this cinematographic choice may be trying to illustrate how much viewers don’t know. We only know a little bit of the history between Bright and his dad and we know about it primarily from Bright’s perspective. However, I found the frequent use of shallow focus a bit distracting because it was so pervasive.

Now, what I really liked about the show were the actors and performances. Michael Sheen’s Dr. Whitly/Surgeon was truly creepy and seemed to hint at layers of characterization that will (hopefully) develop over the course of the season. The show also did a good job of using him enough to establish his backstory and relationship with Bright without letting him overly dominate the story.

In addition, there are a trio of treasures playing supporting characters that I hope to see more of in the coming weeks. First, certified National Treasure Lou Diamond Phillips plays Gil Arroyo, an NYPD cop with a connection to Bright that’s explained at the end of the pilot. We don’t learn much about his character in the pilot other than his trust in Bright but I always enjoy Phillips. He also serves as a more grounded character compared to the heightened Bright and Whitly and their strange father-son relationship. Second, the show features Gilmore Girls treasure Keiko Agena who played Lane in the beloved coming-of-age series. Here, she’s Dr. Edrisa Tanaka, a forensic pathologist who nervously geeks out over identifying wounds with Bright, injecting a nice bit of comedy into an otherwise grim show. Finally, Scandal treasure Bellamy Young, who played Mellie Grant in the political drama, now plays Jessica Whitly, the mother of Malcom Bright and wife of serial killer Malcolm Whitly. In the pilot she appears like an aristocratic society mother, almost as if Edith Wharton’s matriarchs were revamped for the 21st century. Still, Young’s performance hints at the trauma below the character’s shiny superficiality and I hope the show will explore that as it progresses.

Verdict: I’m not yet ready to hit the “record series” button on my DVR. However, I was intrigued enough by the setup and the actors to keep watching for several more weeks to see how the story develops.

Back to School Fears Legitimized: Review of The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

I fan girl hard for Lisa Lutz. Reading her Spellman Files series (about a family of private detectives who are always tailing or phone tapping at least one other family member) was a treat I reserved for special reading occasions, like after I finished an onerous task, and I put off reading the final novel in the series because I did not want it to end. In fact, I adore Lutz’s work so much that she’s one of the writers whose names I frequently search on bookselling websites, social media, and her own author website so as to know exactly when her next novel will be released. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting the release of her most recent novel, The Swallows.

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For fellow Lutzites (Lutzians? Lutz Loons?), the archetypes of her previous novels are still present in her new novel: dysfunctional parents, witty women who somehow still don’t have their life put together, precocious teen girls who are almost too smart for their own good, and lovable male allies who prove to be dependable sidekicks for the female protagonists. While the characters feel consistent with others in Lutz’s fictional universe, the story itself is quite a bit darker than the beloved Spellman series.

In The Swallows, set at Stonebridge (a less than prestigious boarding school in Vermont), Lutz depicts a level of scumbaggery heretofore unseen in her other works. The novel’s conflicts center on a series of sexual scandals (some at other schools and in the past as well as at Stonebridge) that, once uncovered, spiral into tragic and disturbing consequences for everyone involved.

Set in 2009, The Swallows focuses on a pre-#MeToo era but one which is no less filled with predators and prey as well as drastically inequal power dynamics. Smartly, Lutz does not divide the heroes and villains neatly along gender lines nor between faculty/staff and students. The spiral of abuse and retaliation becomes increasingly messy as more about the scandals are uncovered. As a former teacher, I found the corrupt and enabling school administration and teachers extremely unsettling (and that is due to Lutz’s skill in depicting these characters and showing their flaws). This is not a feel-good story and it is to Lutz’s credit that it is not. In fact, the overarching metaphor for the book is one of war with section titles such as “Allies,” “The Army,” and quotes from the likes of Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu prefacing each section. Ultimately, I read the book not as offering solutions to the abuses it documents but as showing what happens when people try to dismantle dehumanizing systems.

Overall, I thought Lutz’s portrayal of the abuse and its intersections with gender was thoughtful and refrained from using stereotypes. However, the book is almost purely heteronormative in the way it documents sexual relationships. I wish Lutz had included LBGTQ+ characters or just addressed these relationships as some part of the school’s social scene. It would have added a different perspective on so many of the male-female heterosexual conflicts and been more realistic for a 2009 high school. Still, readers interested in gender and power dynamics, specifically how they impact people long before they reach the workplace, will find a lot to think about in this novel.

So, if you’re still not sure whether or not to read The Swallows, I suspect the Netflix headings for it would be something along the lines of: Boarding School Capers, Strong Female Leads (way to turn something nice into something weird, Netflix), and Feminist YA. Since the assorted algorithms of Amazon, Spotify, et al, have utterly ruined me, I tend to sort books in a similar way (especially since I sometimes cluster read books in a particular genre over time). Read The Swallows if you liked: any of Lutz’s previous novels, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. (Or, if you haven’t read these other books already, go ahead and check them out. I enjoyed all of them!)