The Alienist, which airs on TNT next Monday, is a breath of fresh air for the network. Or I should say putrid, air given the subject matter is serial killers and the people who track them. Executive produced by Cary Fukunaga and starring Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning, the show gives us a look at NYC’s Gilded age, and the rot located therein.
The show is based on the book Caleb Carr and revolves around Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Brühl), a man who has been the leading voice in treating mental pathologies, dubbed an alienist by the people of his day, and his quest to solve the murders of young boys. The pilot opens with a grisly murder of a young boy, which Laszlo gets wind of. He sends his friend, John Moore (Luke Evans), a society illustrator who wants more out of life, to investigate the scene for him. The two men conclude that there is something more afoot here but run into struggles in the investigation when they encounter the new police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, who has his own ways of approaching crime. Luckily they find several allies in the department, including the NYPD’s first female employee (Dakota Fanning) and two new age cops (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear). Their quest is complicated by the attachments the members have to their jobs and lives and the overwhelming amount of corruption in the city that never sleeps.
Critics were given the first two episodes of the series and they give a great understanding of the mood and characters. Along with this past summer’s Claws, TNT has shown a keen understanding of how to make prestige programming for their audience as The Alienist is an engaging slow build. The characters are very sharp, even the broader characters like the brothel owners, have some interesting tricks up their sleeves. Brühl, Evans, and Fanning make a compelling trio and anchor the show with their acting. Even when seceding time and moments to the other actors, they are always present.
Another great element of the show is the visual language, not surprising given that Fukunaga was involved in getting this to the screen. The Alienist is lush without being ostentatious, every detail feels perfect for the time and setting. It’s creepy without needing to have us in a dark corner every two seconds.
The show doesn’t shy away from much, necessary to get an understanding of just what our characters are up against. I really applaud the show for finding mostly tasteful ways to do this, which is why I was surprised that the end of the second episode is among one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen on television, so much so that I wish TNT had given us 3 episodes rather than two. It’s a moment that could definitely add to the drama and character angst but in a time that’s reckoning with things like sexual assault, consent, and power dynamics, it leaves a foul taste in your mouth. You’ll want to watch the next episode, if only to assuage the horrible feelings you have about what occurred. I watched the episode at the beginning of the month and get a chill every time I think about how episode 2 ends.
Even with this setback, I do think that this series can grow into something very special and stand alongside the explosion of crime dramas we have now.
The Alienist airs on Monday, January 22 at 9pm on TNT.