The Alienist: Pilot

‘The Alienist’ Pilot Recap: “I’m Not Here for Savory Business”

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.

Episode Verdict / Grade: B-

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.


  1. Dan Snoddy

    I enjoyed it, but I’m a massive fan of the novel and its sequel, The Angel of Darkness. I agree with your criticism that it feels a little tired, like we’ve seen it before. It’s a shame they weren’t able to get this on the air ten years ago. I think it has a chance to distinguish itself from the similarly themed shows you mentioned (Hannibal and Mindhunter) by diving into the class warfare that existed in 1890’s New York. A major focus of the book.

    One place where they really dropped the ball is in their depiction of Teddy Roosevelt. As a character in the book he’s a much more gregarious, larger than life individual. You really see the traits that made him into the president everyone remembers from the history books. His character was good friends with Moore and Kreizler, and he was much more open in encouraging their investigation. He was the same straight arrow that’s depicted on the show he just did went about it in a way that was far more entertaining. As a character on the show he’s too subdued, coming across as just another bland authority figure on a police procedural.

  2. Josh Zyber

    [Deleting a comment has the effect of hiding its responses, so I’ll have to start a new chain. Sorry for the messiness.]

    Trond M wrote: “Fascinating. Googling these sentences reveals that they’ve been pasted into many, many comment sections around the internet. So many, in fact, that I think they qualify as spam.”

    Agreed. I’ve deleted that rambling nonsense.

    What’s truly bizarre about it is that Caleb Carr is an American author, not British. The story was always set in New York City, never in London. Teddy Roosevelt was always a major character. And the book was a bestseller, not a flop. Mr. “American History and Reality” lives in a strange alternate reality where he remembers a very different book than the rest of the world.

    As for his assertion that male prostitution and “British sexuality” have never existed in America… That’s cuckoo for Coco Puffs time.

    If anyone else wonders what we’re going on about, Google the phrases “The Alienist was a very British novel” and “The Alienist would have been a much, MUCH better movie and book” and you’ll see this guy’s spam under a host of names on multiple web sites.

  3. American Media Watcher

    This guy?? You write with the paranoia that just one person is responsible for this movie being a ratings bomb. It’s hardly just a single guy. The show did badly and is at 40% and sinking on Rotten Tomatoes the last time I checked. Most people surely haven’t heard of either the movie, book or author and are complaining publicly about advertising over saturation and media trolling. The shows on the other channels easily won the ratings war. Blaming all this on someone you call “this guy” is nuts. You’re the one here that sounds like you’re working with the media to force this bomb show into being a success. Variety and Atlantic and the usual Hollywood import media bunch are notorious about working together to push garbage import junk onto the American public. If you were to ask anyone, YOU ARE THE ONLY CROOKED CRIMINAL SCHEMER ON THIS SITE!!

    Movie and book are imported and British produced. Story originally meant for London, a city in Britain. Show filmed in Hungary by Belgians, all of whom are actually British, starring actors who are British. You are lying directly to the masses to push a show that is wrong and that no one wants to watch.

    • Josh Zyber

      Ooooookay then…

      The Alienist was an American book by an American author (Carr was born and raised in Manhattan) and its story was always set in New York City. Whether you personally liked it or not, the book was also a publishing success that hit both the Publisher’s Weekly and New York Times Best Sellers lists in 1994. These facts are very easily verified. Why you insist that there’s a huge conspiracy to change the setting of the story from London to America is puzzling, to say the least.

      Also easily verified is that you have copy/pasted your same comments onto multiple web sites under several different names (and have used three here so far). This is spamming behavior and I have no patience for it.

      “You are lying directly to the masses to push a show that is wrong and that no one wants to watch.” What a great job I must be doing to “push” this show by giving it a middling rating and saying that I don’t intend to watch further episodes.

  4. Timcharger

    I can’t wait to watch this show about our alien problem. I just watched a series of films about illegal immigrants who rape our throats, implant their seed, feed on welfare from inside of us, and finally murders us by ripping out our bellies. They were good films, except that they had women saving the day. I gotta build a wall between us and outer space, or it’s gonna be game over man!

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