Caleb Carr’s 1994 best selling novel about the hunt for an extra creepy serial killer in 19th century New York finally makes it to the small screen after a mere twenty-four years. Time really flies in development purgatory. So, though it debuts as one of the most highly anticipated shows of the season, was it worth the wait?
I’d never really thought of the ‘90’s as a quaint era of innocent naïveté. But it is true that graphically kinky serial killer sagas were a bit thinner on the ground back then. The Alienist had a unique cache that it no longer can lay claim to in this post-Hannibal, Dexter, Mindhunter, The Fall, The Following, True Detective, Bates Motel, etc. world. Nor is it alone in exploring the gritty side of the late 1800s, as Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, Copper, and especially The Knick have done so well. Shorn of novelty, The Alienist needs to pick up its game in other ways.
For anyone tuning in wondering just what an alienist is (Undercover ICE agent? Extraterrestrial dental hygienist? Wacky, next-door neighbor from outer space?), the show starts by doling out a kind of Wikipedia entry explaining that the mentally ill of the period were considered to be “alienated” from their true natures. So those studying them were called, …wait for it …“alienists”.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing the show spells out in just so many words. It spends its time explaining everything. Nothing at all is left to the imagination, or presented without comment. Instead, the viewer is relentlessly lectured on exactly what social ill or cultural stigma or class iniquity or institutional corruption we are being presented with and what we ought to think about it.
The plot itself is basic enough: It’s 1896, and if you were wondering where the body of a young boy prostitute is, it’s splayed atop the as-yet-unfinished Williamsburg Bridge, horribly mutilated and decked out in girl’s clothing. News of the event piques the disquieted interest of one Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, played by Daniel Brühl (Captain America: Civil War, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Rush), the titular alienist, who recognizes the pattern from the murder of two children years earlier, one of whom had been his patient. To get the details, he sends his friend, society section news illustrator and weird cheating fiancé fantasy fetishist, John Moore, played by Luke Evans (of Beauty & The Beast, The Hobbit, and various Fast and Furious sequels fame) to draw him a picture – literally.
Certain that he’s discovered the signs of a serial killer, Kreizler, with Moore in tow, tries to enlist the aid of the city’s Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that Theodore Roosevelt), played by the appallingly miscast Brian Geraghty (Ray Donovan, Boardwalk Empire, and Chicagos P.D., Med and Fire, respectively), who seems amazingly blasé about the news for a guy whose entire reputation was built around cleaning up NY.
Of course, before they can even get to Teddy, they first have to go through his aide; the first female hire on the NYPD, Sara Howard, played by Dakota Fanning (Please Stand By, American Pastoral, War of The Worlds), attempting to channel the entire history of the feminist movement in her every awkwardly-written blurt.
An admirer of Kreizler’s, Sara sneaks him the files he wants on the old murder case, handing them off to a surprised and embarrassed Moore outside his favorite brothel, asking only to be kept up on the details …of the murder investigation, not his brothel adventures. We, the audience, are not so luckily spared.
The files prove to be worthless in that cute, old-timey, we don’t know how to cop, why-write-down-indelicate-details-when-they-can-do-naught-but-upset, what is this forensics thing you speak of, way. And Kreizler is forced to dig up the info on his own. Or rather, he hires a few gravediggers to do it for him; disinterring the two murdered siblings with what seems to be the same speed and ease you or I might order a pizza.
Granted, a pizza wouldn’t likely come with a side of grieving mom in full mourning gear, floating in like Marley’s Ghost to point an accusing finger, cry and leave. But I suppose one took one’s chances with door-to-door delivery back then.
Speaking of which, in-home forensic autopsy turns out to be available on demand as well, as the Issacson brothers (Matthew Shear and Douglas Smith) decide to take time from their busy day jobs as police detectives and brunts of institutionalized anti-Semitism so they can inspect old skeletal remains for the doc.
And voila! The seeds of our Gay Nineties Goonies squad are sown.
It’s at about this point that the killer starts getting both attention and protein-starved and begins sautéing and leaving grizzly little anatomical leftover gifties for Kreizler to happen upon. Sadly, if Hannibal Lecter is the Julia Child of the serial killing cannibal set, I’m afraid The Alienist’s loon de cuisine would be hard-pressed to aspire to Guy Fiery status. Yet another instance of this adaptation being a day late and a trauma short.
Catching sight of the killer sneaking an unsubtle peek at how his present goes over from across the street, Kreizler is lured on a wild chase through the less genteel parts of town and up an abandoned tenement. Of course, it being episode 1, there’s exactly zero chance of him catching up to our mystery murderer. But suggesting he disappeared via a hole in a roof thirty feet up, with no rope, stairs or handholds in sight, replaces suspense with incredulity …unless the big twist is that the serial killer is Spiderman.
The episode ends as Kreizler sits morosely in his study, his maid, Mary (Q’orianka Kilcher, whose agent never managed to swing her a single line of dialog, poor thing), removing his shoes, while he darkly monologues a string of hoary, grand guignol clichés, “Only if I become him, if I cut the child’s throat myself, if I run my knife through a helpless body and pluck innocent eyes from a horrified face, only then will I come to truly understand what I am …Yes, I must follow this wherever it goes, even if it leads me to the darkest pit of hell.”
Then he suddenly snaps out of his stupor, notices his maid’s horrified expression and yawps, “Ooh! Sorry! Did I say that out loud?!”
No, not really.
That would have required a sense of humor and self-awareness that The Alienist sadly lacks.
I don’t want to be utterly down about everything. The Alienist is certainly a gorgeous-looking show, with beautiful production values, precise attention to physical detail, wonderful sets, costumes and cinematography, and a cast full of quality actors. TNT certainly spared no expense in mounting this.
It should have everything going for it, and, in fact, does deliver the occasional thrill and chill. The problem is that everything in it feels like a hand-me-down. The hour plays like a collection of well-worn serial killer and 19th century social commentary tropes strung together with commercial breaks. There’s nothing here the viewer hasn’t seen many times before. And even if the novel originally broke that ground, the series needs to find a way to do it fresher and/or better than everything else that has mined that quarry since.
Unfortunately, at least the pilot episode fails to accomplish that. It also fails to deliver any social message, however relevant to the present, without dropping it like a ten ton cartoon anvil. A good deal of this is due to a script full of almost undeliverable dialogue that bounces between hectoring streams of import-splaining, depth dives into lurid cliché, and cringe-making, forced injections from the screenwriter’s copy of Victorian Slang For Dummies.
Since I’ve seen the cast members deliver excellent performances elsewhere, I have to assume it’s the fault of the direction they’re getting that half the cast (all the good guys) seem determined to deliver their lines in vacant-eyed, monotonic drones and the other half (the bad guys) act as if they’re mustache-twirling villains in a rollicking vaudeville show whose back row is located somewhere on the moon.
Particularly egregious in this respect is Evans, who seems so focused on his American accent that he has no energy left for anything else; Fanning, who never stops sounding like she’s still learning her lines, and for that matter, trying to understand half of them, and Geraghty, who, were he any more dull and bland, would fade into his office walls, never to be seen again.
Of course, this is just episode 1, and I understand another director steps in by the third ep. This is a good thing, as the worst issues with the Alienist could be rectified with better direction and a script shorn of its mega-messaging and lazy clichés.
There’s the essence of a seriously good show lurking in The Alienist (the reason so many other series have followed in the novel’s gory footsteps since). Here’s hoping they can fix things and ultimately deliver on its promise. I’ll certainly be tuning in to see.