The Alienist is the latest addition to a growing subgenre of period television—an unromantic look at the past that’s less the stuff of gowns, balls, and marriage plots than the moody, broody underbelly of centuries past.
Adapted from Caleb Carr’s 1994 page-turner, TNT’s new Monday night offering follows Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), an alienist hunting a serial killer in late 19th-century New York City. The show is a bit too enthralled by its own concept and treats the term “alienist” itself as some exotic, unknown concept that’s unfamiliar to television viewers. But the term, an amorphous Victorian occupation that’s an outmoded term for a psychiatrist, should already be familiar to viewers with a penchant for historical whodunits, particularly those who watched Alias Grace, Netflix’s Margaret Atwood adaptation. But Kriezler is just any alienist, like any good procedural protagonist, he is forward-thinking and controversially too modern in his therapeutic approaches.
Thus, when a boy sex worker, dressed in the clothes of a girl, is found murdered, his body abandoned on a half-built bridge, Kriezler is immediately notified. The victim, referred to as “it” by the inevitably callous and corrupt police detectives assigned to the job, has been mutilated, which The Alienist treats visually as simultaneously fetishistic and stylized.
But the boy on the bridge is just, part of a larger, complicated puzzle, as by now we all but expect to be the case in shows like this one. As the bodies of boys, all sex workers and all dressed as girls (to be clear, the show does a bit of a dance around gender identity and labor, never making it clear if the sex workers are trans or dressing as girls for purposes of their work), begin turning up and even more are discovered in purposefully hidden police files, it becomes clear that the police are covering up the work of a serial killer targeting these boys, as well as the brothels profiting off of the boys. Cue Kriezler who previously worked with a trans child who, along with a twin sister, was also brutally murdered. The murder is somehow connected and haunts Kriezler, who happens to have surprisingly progressive, 21st-century-esque approaches to acceptance and gender identity, as well as a clear moral compass.
So, with the permission of college classmate and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), Kriezler launches a shadow investigation. He gathers a team of misfits to assist him: There’s budding feminist Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) who is the first woman to work in the police department, the emotionally-stunted New York Times society illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), and Lucius and Marcus Isaacson (Matthew Shear and Douglas Smith), two quirky pathologists whose methods, like Kreizler’s, are well ahead of their time.
The group is composed of fine actors, and their chemistry, though a little spoonfed by stylized camera work and lingering looks, is The Alienist’s strength. Fanning is a master of meaningful looks that require no dialogue and Evans’s penchant for melodramatic delivery somehow always works. Brühl, too, delivers cliché procedural lines with a kind of believable empathy. “Only if I become him [...] only then will I come to truly understand what I am,” Brühl says, delivering the show’s thesis statement on how to hunt a serial killer. As he delivers the monologue, Kreizler’s silent servant Mary Palmer (Q’orianka Kilcher) weeps at his feet.
If the show is slow to assemble the pieces of its puzzle, taking instead its time to relish in violence in a variety of forms, its actors are quick to pick up the pace when given the chance. The result is something like The Knick-meets Sherlock-with a dash of True Detective. Even though The Alienist’s source material precedes the relatively recent rise of the grimy period piece, the show itself still feels citational. There’s already a wealth of similar broody period television that transports the procedural to the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (The Knick, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and Taboo, to name just a few). They do so in ways that are now familiar, exploring everything from poverty to prostitution, drug use, alcoholism, immigration, Victorian technology, and even urban infrastructure. Cities are always foggy and blackened, and men are always brilliantly insightful but deeply emotionally troubled.
The same is true of The Alienist that, while well-acted and visually striking, doesn’t quite distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded field.