Paramount tried for over two decades to launch a big-budget movie adaptation of Caleb Carr’s bestselling 1994 historical mystery thriller ‘The Alienist’, but every attempt fell through until the project eventually got shifted to television. It finally premiered this week on the TNT cable network in what is described as a 10-part limited event series (unless it gets huge ratings that beg for another season, of course). Was the show worth all the wait?
The ads plastered all over IMDb for the past week insist that ‘The Alienist’ is the most-anticipated new TV show of 2018. Considering how young the year is, I expect that something with more buzz will supplant it soon enough. For as much money as was obviously spent on it, the series doesn’t exactly tread any new ground that we haven’t seen in other movies and TV shows. The story may be spiced up by its period setting and enthusiastic luridness, but it’s ultimately a police procedural about a quirky detective who investigates murders. One or two of those may have aired on television over the years.
The year is 1896. In the muck and filth of New York City’s Bowery district, a policeman on patrol comes across a severed hand lying in the snow. He looks up and sees something much worse on the bridge above him. This quickly comes to the attention of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), an alienist (sort of a precursor to a psychiatrist) who mostly works with children. Kreizler is immediately fascinated, but because he’s on bad terms with the police department, has to send his friend John Moore (Luke Evans), a newspaper illustrator, to draw every detail for him. After bluffing his way into the crime scene, what Moore finds is the badly mutilated body of a young boy wearing a dress. The victim’s limbs have been hacked up in ritualistic fashion and his eyes plucked out.
To emphasize how gross this is, episode director Jakob Verbruggen (a last-minute replacement for Cary Fukunaga) swoops his camera directly into one of the gory eye sockets. Lovely.
Kreizler insists on investigating the case. This is met with disapproval from new police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty from ‘Chicago P.D.’), who doesn’t care for the doctor interfering in police affairs. Of course, Kreizler presses on anyway. He identifies the victim as a child prostitute and links the crime to the murder of another young boy who had been in his care years earlier. When the police pin the death on a syphilitic oaf who’d killed another man in the same area, Kreizler interviews the suspect and quickly determines that he isn’t responsible for both murders. His was a crime of passion, not ritual. Because the boy was an immigrant, however, the police have little interest in pursuing the matter further.
Kreizler takes it upon himself to exhume the body of the earlier victim and hires a pair of coroners to compare it to the new corpse and look for signs that they had the same perpetrator. He also convinces Moore to rope in the assistance of his former flame Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a strong-willed and angry woman currently working as Commissioner Roosevelt’s secretary.
In the premiere episode’s climax, Kreizler spots a masked figure stalking him on the street and chases him into an abandoned building, where the mystery man vanishes from a room whose only exit is a hole in the ceiling. Left behind on the floor is a severed piece of human tongue wrapped in newspaper. The episode ends with the killer targeting a new victim.
From its elaborate, expansive sets and visual effects intended to sell the period setting, this is clearly an expensive production and wants you to know it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel entirely convincing. The characters’ sensibilities (especially Dakota Fanning’s proto-feminist) are very modern and the actors mostly look like they’re playing dress-up. The show is a very dark and brooding affair that gleefully wallows in filth and unpleasantness, with gore that rivals NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ in trying to push the boundaries of what it can get away with on TV, yet without that show’s artistry.
The pilot episode’s plot moves at a breathless rush from one event to another, afraid to slow down for fear of losing viewers’ attention. This leaves the characters with no room to breathe or behave like actual human beings between bouts of blurting out exposition. Perhaps subsequent episodes will slow down a bit, but I’m not sure that I care to find out. For all of its frantic action and attempts to build suspense, the story isn’t especially original or compelling. Maybe it can be argued that a lot of movies and TV shows have ripped off Caleb Carr’s novel since it was published, but a fair number of them did it better than this.
For a period piece drama about detectives trying to suss out the motivations of a serial killer, Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’ is a lot more plausible and leaves you with significantly more to think about. I didn’t hate ‘The Alienist’, but one episode is probably enough for me.