Picture Sherlock Holmes in New York aided by the techies from Criminal Minds and you’ll begin to get a feel for what you’ll experience watching The Alienist. This new series from TNT will debut on January 22.
I was able to preview the first two episodes and was impressed with the story, the acting, the production design, and the cinematography. I had certain reservation about the political undertones, but more on that later.
What’s an Alienist?
When I first heard about this show, I thought, “X-Files in the 1890s,” but it’s not that kind of alienist. Psychologists studying aberrant behavior were believed to be helping people “alienated from their true selves.” The alienist in this show who becomes focused on criminal behavior is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, played by Daniel Brühl (The Zookeeper’s Wife, Captain America: Civil War).
Kreizler runs a school for emotionally distressed children. The murder of one of his former charges motivates him to start investigating criminal minds. Luckily for him, two of his buddies from Harvard are around to help.
What a Team!
John Moore, played by Luke Evans (High Rise, Furious 7), creates illustrations for the New York Times. His specialty is the society pages, but his friendship with Kreizler takes him to the scene of grisly murders. His passion for debauchery, however, complicates things for Kreizler and threatens their relationship.
Kriezler’s other college buddy is New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, played by Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker, Wildlike). New on the job, Roosevelt suspects, correctly, that corruption is afoot in his department. He secretly assists Kreizler with his investigative efforts through his secretary.
Roosevelt’s secretary Sara Howard, played by Dakota Fanning (Charlotte’s Web, Please Stand By), the first woman to work for the NYPD, wants to become its first female detective. She uses her budding investigative talents to aid Kriezler, while battling the prejudice and sexism of her co-workers.
All the performances are spot-on including those by a large supporting cast, playing policemen, boy prostitutes, mental patients, and various denizens of New York’s poorest and most crime ridden neighborhoods.
Kriezler has three servants: Cyrus, the valet with a mysterious past played by Robert Ray Wisdom (The Wire); Stevie, driver and errand boy, played by Matt Lintz (Pixels); and, the mute maid played by Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World). I expect them to play important parts as the series progresses.
Douglas Smith (Miss Sloane) and Matthew Shear (Mistress America) play Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, brothers whose pioneering efforts in forensic science have made them unpopular with the police force. Roosevelt also nudges them into helping Kriezler, completing his team.
What’s New York?
In the case of The Alienist, New York is Budapest. The production, filmed in Hungary, created a turn-of-the-century Gotham that will leave you amazed. And, what’s a good police procedural without a heart-pounding car chase? No cars here, but we do get horse-and-buggy chases which are almost as exciting.
Speaking of Gotham, the mental institution Kriezler visits in pursuit of the serial child murderer makes Gotham’s Arkham Asylum look like Club Med; it’s scary. Other locations The Alienist creates will make you feel chills, compassion, and revulsion as its characters explore slums, brothels, and morgues.
The cinematography deserves mention. The hand-held camera technique keeps you close to the action, even when you want to step back. I was also impressed by the use of subjective camera – seeing through the eyes of one of the characters – which then seamlessly shifted back to following the character via hand-held. This is hard to do, but is an indication of the effort put in to making this an engaging drama.
The show also includes some of the most graphic sex and gore I’ve ever observed on a non-premium cable channel. No kids in the room when you watch this.
I received a subtle social-justice-warrior vibe from The Alienist.
Whether this was intentional or just part of the writer’s subconscious view of the world, I’m not sure. The villains are police on the take and businessmen running the vile brothels while the heroes are a psychologist, a newspaper man and a feminist. The Isaacson brothers tell Kriezler they won’t be missed back at the police department because “…we are Jews”, and one of the Isaacson brothers has an assignation with an organizer of the socialist party. I also think the treatment of Fanning’s character by her co-workers is a bit over-the-top, but I could be wrong about that.
I guess the writer overlooked the fact that Roosevelt was a Republican.
Despite this one reservation, I recommend that you add The Alienist to your must watch list. The characters are sympathetic, the production values are first class, and the storyline will draw you in. Just remember, there are no little green men involved.
You can watch a preview, below.