Based on Caleb Carr’s Best Selling multi-genre work The Alienist, TNT’s 10 episode titular series, premiered in late January. The weekly series presents an intriguing look into the timelessness of New York City’s economic classes, social conflicts, familial and personal traumas. The sensational production design imprints 1896 Manhattan in indelible and fascinating visuals with commensurate sounds and silences. Happily, in these endeavors, the series injects poetic infusions of historical nuance and thrilling drama courtesy of its excellent cast.
The sumptuousness of costumes, furniture, drapery, and exquisitely designed mansion interiors draws us to the righteousness of Gilded Age glamour. In contrast to those worlds, the baleful, filthy, tattered, squalid interiors of brothels and impoverished immigrant dwellings and neighborhoods repel us. And the sterile, austere, dark, heavily masculine decor of the police department office moderates between the two worlds. The police department interiors belie the surreptitious corruption and quid pro quos. Such deals fashioned by wealthy clients in exchange to cover-up crimes happen regularly.
As the wealthy prey upon the poor, the social and economic inequities propped up by a twisted and perverse justice system maintain the status quo. Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt provides layers of hope for reform. Ah yes, this is New York in all its glory and griminess. The only element missing is the gaudiness of the entertainment class that rides in between.
Interestingly, the series (first three episodes), becomes a study in contrasts. The beautiful and the damned, hyper-wealth and searing want, the whitewashed wicked and the flawed innocent! Regardless of class and economic status, all become devoured by the gruesome murders of boy prostitutes. But for Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty-The Hurt Locker), and his college friend alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl, Rush), the serial killer would stalk and murder possibly until the end of his well-heeled life.
Interestingly, to recreate what appears to be a turn of the century Manhattan, the production team traveled to Budapest. And though Budapest architecture sufficed in a few scenes, for others the team did more than improvise. Indeed they fabricated a set that is 10 city blocks in full scale. Additionally, for the opening scene, they actually built a portion of the Williamsburg Bridge. According to production designer Mara La Pere Schloop in an article by Scott Rosenberg the construction became an engineering exploit. Nevertheless, Manhattan streets recreated in those ten blocks reveal the same blocks out of time in Soho or Mulberry Street. Hopefully, Budapest will not tear the set down for a long while as it, in itself, a miracle of design.
Indeed, the obvious expense, attention to details and prodigious effort with production values solidify The Alienist as one of the premiere offerings this season. And to that, I add the camerawork, the editing effects and shot compositions which infuse the dark, sinister tones lurking around each corner. Importantly, the atmospheric, spooky exteriors and the muted lighting of gas lamps enhancing the weirdly eerie cruelty shadowed on the countenances of the police and others is just superb.
From start to the finish the viewer peers through a window pane fogged with the mist of an alien time. However, as the story progresses we are shocked to realize such characters populate story-lines from our cell phone screens today. If you remove the history shining through the fabulous sets and costumes, you stare into the unchanging heart of the most pernicious elements of human nature. Notably, this clarifies why Carr’s novel and his Kreizler series fascinates. Assuredly, each episode I’ve seen mesmerizes and enthralls with mystery and grim reaper reality.
From to atmospheric effects of exteriors, the divergences of class and demographics provide eye-opening historical references. As in the book, we learn of new investigative techniques. These include photography, finger-printing and psychological profiling not accepted by official police investigators. However, Commissioner Roosevelt has enjoined friend Dr. Kreizler to examine the teenage boys’ corpses. He arrives at the crime scene before the police to employ his novel technology. With a team he amasses and codifies by the end of Episode Two, Kreizler embarks on a frightening journey down the streets of New York and into the souls of all near him.
Subsequently, as in the book, his key investigators include journalist and illustrator, the troubled hedonist John Moore (Luke Evans). Additionally, a forward-thinking Vassar college graduate, the complicated Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), contributes her skills. Eschewing traditional notions of gender and class, Howard desires purpose in her life. So when she proves herself useful to Kreizler in her role as a secretary in the police department, he asks her to join their investigative company.
I found the discrimination against Sara in the police department to be accurate and not over-hyped as some have suggested. A time before women received the vote, traditional “feminine” styles demanded women strap themselves up in binding corsets that suffocated. A memorial to their bound spirits. Around that time Kate Chopin, who wrote the magnificent The Awakening created a protagonist who violated acceptable “ladylike” behavior. Because her character made independent choices, critics found the work offensive and dunned it. Thus, to imagine Sara Howard receiving opprobrium in an all-male workplace, let alone the police department, the bastion of the macho, is in keeping with the cultural and social mores about women.
Finally, the techie wizards, the Isaacson brothers, Marcus and Lucius contribute their gifts and devices. Played by Douglas Smith-Big Love and Matthew Shear-Mistress America, they represent technical modernity and recall how far we’ve progressed.
Importantly, the third episode clues us into the possible identity of the killer and his MO. But more crucial to Dr. Kreizler becomes the “why?” And this question reveals the covert, lurking wounds of everyone he has surrounded himself with. His servants Cyrus Montrose (Robert Wisdom-The Wire) and silent Mary Palmer (Q’orianka Kilcher) are both murderers Kreizler attempts to rehabilitate and learn from. Gradually, they expose their inner natures to him and us so we note why they killed.
Also, Kreizler’s uncanny ability to hone in on the psyches of friend John and possible love interest Sara Howard fascinates. Nevertheless, his obsessive-compulsive character, his emotional furies, and manias indicate Kreizler’s soul wounds run deep. Thus, the complexity of the human consciousness and unconsciousness threads its themes. These symbolic lines develop in greater measure as the investigation takes off and runs deep into the bowels of New York City’s neighborhoods and internal minds of the wealthy and the poor.
Though Sara Howard has joined the team of investigators with excitement, she responds with mixed courage upon viewing the killers’ handiwork. The corpses apart from the boys’ desperate occupations reveal innocent-looking young ones dressed in what’s left of shredded female clothing. The sexually mutilated bodies savaged beyond recognition with eyes gored out reveal a wealth of clues for one who bores into the psychoses of serial murderers.
However, problems abound. More clues are needed. Furthermore, Roosevelt’s position may be compromised if word gets out that the alienist and his team have been skulking about as the head of police surmises.
Kreizler upon a tip from John removes himself to the abyss of misery near the brothels. There, a hungry and desperate teen male sex worker reveals the individual in the shadows had “A Silver Smile.” The enticing clue forges the investigation ahead. But complications confound. John has left his sketch pad at the crime scene. Someone picked it up. Regardless of whether it be the police or the murderer, the investigators will now be investigated.
Not only does series three advance the arc of development, with the investigation. It also brings us deeper into the social hypocrisies, the economic injustices and the police corruption that maintains the toxic social structure. Echoes of today abound. Additionally, as Kreizler is wont to do, he mines the psyches of his investigators noting their wounds, gauging their traumas as a way into himself and the killer. Thus, we anticipate the team will be stumbling toward the cliff of their own madness. And there they may empathize with the soul and mind of the killer to identify him. Or they may vault over into the depths of insanity and never be the same again.
The superb ensemble work, the fine production values, the clear screenplay and spot-on direction deliver the suspense and continually engage. Importantly, each episode opens with the catchphrase that resonates with our present, though it refers to the past. “In the 19th Century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.”
I cannot think of a better time to again explore Carr’s work. And this series which holds The Alienist close to its heart, in examining social constructs and human hearts resonates for all time. There are seven episodes left of The Alienist. The series airs on Monday nights at 9 pm. Check with TNT listings and local times.