Worth Watching: Search for the 'Prodigal Son,' John Malkovich is the 'New Pope,' 'Spy Games' on Bravo & 'Brain Games' on Nat Geo
A selective critical checklist of notable Monday TV:
Prodigal Son (9/8c, Fox): "I'm a pretty good screamer. I've had plenty of practice," reveals a kidnapped Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne) to the Junkyard Killer (True Blood's Michael Raymond-James) who's keeping him prisoner as the top-notch thriller returns from winter hiatus in full psycho mode. Don't be shocked if you're also screaming by the terrifying climax. While Malcolm is busy suffering and reliving more diabolical childhood memories as he tries to get inside the killer's head, his police buddies intensify the manhunt, and Gil (Lou Diamond Phillips) pays a personal visit to "The Surgeon" Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen) in solitary. If his creepy cackle doesn't chill the blood, nothing will.
9-1-1: Lone Star (8/7c, Fox): Son is now preceded by the midseason tryout of 9-1-1's Texas spinoff in its regular time period. As new Capt. Owen Strand, Rob Lowe has an especially good time this week tweaking his metrosexual image as he badgers his crew about the importance of skin care and pampering one's hair. (When he consults a cancer doctor about alternative treatments, his hairline seems to be his greatest worry.) The emergency that opens the show, featuring office workers who suddenly become suicidal zombies, is a classic.
The New Pope (9/8c, HBO): Barely teased in the first episode, John Malkovich takes center stage as Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) and his papal delegation head to England to convince the cagey and diffident Sir John Brannox (Malkovich) to be their new leader. Brannox mystifies the Vatican crew with his melancholy ambivalence during their stay, but as his manservant observes of his master's fragile and delicate nature, Brannox has weathered a "life burdened with crippling sorrows and unspeakable disappointments." Looks like they're going to have their holy hands full.
Brain Games (8/7c, National Geographic Channel): The mind-teasing series feels more like a game show in a reinvented format, with a manic studio audience and host Keegan Michael-Key welcoming celebrity guests to play along and demonstrate cognitive anomalies. The new if not improved series kicks off with back-to-back episodes, starting with Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard facing off in a battle of the sexes designed to highlight differences between male and female brains. The second episode features the great Ted Danson (The Good Place) in segments revealing tricks of the eye and ear. Watching poker pros try to keep a poker face after swallowing wasabi — or is it guacamole — may be more Truth or Consequences than Brain Games, but it's still fun.
Spy Games (10/9c, Bravo): This role-playing competition series, in which contestants are schooled in the arts of deception and espionage as they're sent on missions, mostly made me miss The Mole. (And please tell me there will be an episode in which one of the players has to be a mole!) In the opening round, 10 wannabe Bonds and Nikitas arrive dressed for a swank gala, only to be forced to spend the night before camping (glamping?) in the woods. Without benefit of any training — or a shower — they're then sent into a party to collect phone numbers and get out. (The ones who make the most noise are the ones in the most trouble.) With former CIA, Secret Service and FBI agents as "assessors," the bottom two players face a round of "interrogation" at a "black site" before one is eliminated. Still feels more real to me than an episode of Real Housewives.
Inside Monday TV: Among specials reflecting the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday are TV One's Urban One Honors (8/7c), a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of Radio One, with honorees including Missy Elliott, Jamie Foxx, Chance the Rapper and Pose's Ryan Jamaal Swain; and the Bounce movie The Nomads (9/8c), starring Tika Sumpter (mixed-ish) and Tate Donovan in the uplifting story of an African-American teacher and white colleague who help form a rugby team in inner-city North Philadelphia… HGTV's Home Town (9/8c) begins its fourth season with Ben and Erin Napier renovating a Mississippi home for actor Richard T. Jones (The Rookie) and wife Nancy when a tornado hits the town of Laurel… PBS's No Passport Required (9/8c, check local listings at pbs.org) launches a second season of culinary travel within the U.S. as chef Marcus Samuelsson samples traditional Armenian foods in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles… WGN America's comedy-mystery Carter (10/9c) returns for a second year, with Jerry O'Connell as Harley Carter, a TV detective who now doubles as a licensed P.I.