TNT is betting a lot on The Alienist. An expensive prestige historical fiction series, backed by a successful trilogy of novels and the showrunner of True Detective, it smacks of the network attempting to grasp hold of the Peak Television trend that has largely passed it by. Having seen the first two episodes, I can report that while there’s some interesting and subtle subject material in there, the execution is too blunt and unoriginal for it to stand out.
The Alienist is set in the world of criminal psychology in 1896 New York, which immediately puts it in an awkward place of comparison to Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, set at the same turning point of science and superstition. The New York City of The Alienist is grimmer, more ostentatious, and less authentic-feeling than Soderbergh's, although both shows share an obsession with dramatising the invention of modern techniques in their respective fields. Indeed, coming so soon after Mindhunter, The Alienist feels like a conscious nose-thumbing to Holden Ford and company, ostensibly coming up with the concepts of forensic psychology and serial killers nearly a century beforehand.
The show’s title character is Dr Lazslo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), whose job title - “alienist” - refers to the prevailing wisdom of the time, which suggested the mentally ill were merely “alienated” from their true or ideal selves. Kreizler is brought on to help solve a series of gruesome murders of boy prostitutes, teaming up with police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) and - in lieu of a photographer - illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), working with little help from a closed-minded and brutish police force. Kreizler is hellbent on discovering the secrets of the criminal psyche, and will do anything - including the increasingly pedestrian-seeming act of “becoming the killer” - in order to do it.
The three lead actors in The Alienist do their damnedest in their respective roles, but sadly suffer from miscasting. Brühl fares best, sinking into his obsessive psychologist with a palpable neediness. Evans, supposedly portraying some kind of 19th-century playboy artist, feels uncomfortable in his role, as if unsure who the character is. But he’s not as grossly miscast as Dakota Fanning, whose character - both the show’s sole significant female character and, seemingly by way of apology, a fiery first-wave feminist - is saddled with the purplest period dialogue of the bunch. At one point I had to rewind to catch a line about “billy-noodles” and “mutton-shunters,” so unconvincing was its Proof-Of-Research slang. How could the show’s creative team have expected Fanning - as modern-American as they come - to sell this stuff?
One feels like a more complete product would have been turned in had creator Cary Fukunaga directed every episode as originally intended (the first two eps fell instead to Jacob Verbruggen). The Alienist is stuck between stylistic poles represented by The Knick and Hannibal - awkwardly combining a thirst for realism with one for more baroque artistry. It's hard to say what, exactly, is this show's aesthetic. Regardless, it’s as grisly as you’d expect from a serial killer show set less than a decade after Jack the Ripper, going out of its way to create unpleasant iconography through death, gore, and disease. There’s some quality craft here - it just hasn’t gelled into something singular.
By far the most interesting element of The Alienist is its social commentary, which thanks to the crudity of its setting dances on a knife-edge of progressive and regressive representation. 1896 NYC wasn’t the most tolerant place, as evidenced by the prejudice present almost everywhere - especially in the police. The cops in The Alienist beat people, accuse them of crimes, and sweep their issues under the rug, solely because they don’t like who they are - much like today, I suppose, just more brazen. That police willingness to ignore homosexuality, prostitution, or immigrants - especially in combination - is depicted as a direct cause of the crime that plagues those elements. It's public shame about queerness, not queerness itself, that leads to the show's villains’ exploitation of underprivileged boys.
That’s certainly a bold angle for a period show, replete with opportunities to pass comment about the modern-day equivalents of the various bigotries found within. Certainly, a show about sex crimes set in a world that refuses to acknowledge the existence of them is an intriguing concept, as is a show about psychology set in a time laden with superstition about the mind. Luckily, Kreizler’s approach to it all - and clearly, that of the writers - is a modern one. One patient at Kreizler’s centre for disturbed children is in there because her parents believe her masturbation is a sign of demonic possession; the good doctor's response is impossibly progressive, making him feel like some kind of time traveler.
But god damn, does this show tread on dangerous ground when it comes to its depiction of its boy prostitutes. The show plays right into the othering of its young male sex workers, its camera leers at the “bizarre” sight of boys dancing, singing, and wrestling to get potential customers’ attention. It's not sexualised from the show's perspective, but it strips away these characters’ humanity, reducing them to a gallery of freaks. That the second episode ends with Evans’ character being drugged and blackmailed by a group of said boys is a sour note to end on. Maybe it’ll save face in subsequent episodes; maybe not.
Having not read the Caleb Carr novels upon which the show is based, I can’t speak to where the show will go from here. The setting is certainly ripe for exploration, and the first two episodes drop a range of clues indicating quite the mystery is afoot. The characters, sadly, aren’t as promising - the only development in the cards is an eye-rollingly forced romance, and only Brühl is reliably watchable. There’s a whole trilogy of books to work from, though, so TNT obviously hopes it has a Hannibal on its hands.
Whether audiences go for The Alienist’s particular blend of serial-killer procedural and period social investigation remains to be seen. It certainly delves into fascinating subject material, but its lurid execution will likely turn many viewers off. That’s as of the first two episodes, at least - there’s every opportunity for the show to improve upon its shortcomings, and maximise its strengths, as it goes on. TNT had better hope it does.