An adaptation of Caleb Carr’s historical fiction novel The Alienist seemed like a surefire hit back when the novel was published in 1994. Producers like Scott Rudin thought so as well, and although the rights to Carr’s novel were bought and moved around, with it being reported that L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson was lined up to direct, the project never came to fruition. Carr had been vocal at the time regarding his opinion of the planned film version, so perhaps that fans were left without a major motion picture of The Alienist at the time was ultimately for the best.
The novel may have been better suited for television anyway. In the mid-‘90s, a television adaptation of an acclaimed novel would have been like getting picked last for dodgeball, but given the rapid expansion of the medium and the cultural dominance of so many tV projects since the mid-2000s that’s really no longer the case. Though many years since the novel was first published, the series was initially going to be brought to life by Cary Fukunaga, whose work on True Detective certainly made the event series seem incredibly appealing. But as has been the case with so much of Fukunaga’s planned projects of late, he left directorial duties on The Alienist behind, though he remained on the project as executive producer.
As such, the story of The Alienist is almost as much about the project (or projects) that could have been, as it is about the finished product. Under the direction of Jakob Verbruggen, who has crafted episodes of similarly dark material with The Fall and London Spy, as well as the military-themed Black Mirror episode ‘Men Against Fire’, the series is undoubtedly different from what might have emerged from Fukunaga’s exacting eye, but the result is still a captivating and stylish murder mystery, albeit one that likely arrived a decade or two too late.
The event series is getting a huge, deserved push from TNT, which is no surprise considering the lavish, expensive production design, recreating late 19th century New York with such remarkable style and detail. The breadth of the production is one typically associated with the likes of HBO or the bottomless pockets of Netflix and Amazon. That it is instead on TNT marks a significant shift in perception of the cable network, one not unlike how Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot transformed USA from a channel known for blue sky narratives about good looking white guys dressed in nice suits to one that could produce edgier, more visually engaging fare and later go on to develop an event series like The Sinner with Jessica Biel.
The Alienist has a lot going for it with a strong cast. Daniel Brühl stars as Dr. Laslo Kreizler, while Luke Evans appears as crime reporter and friend to Kriezler, John Moore. Rounding out the main cast is Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard, the personal assistant to Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), then acting police commissioner. It also has a keen sense of intrigue, as a series of gruesome murders of sex workers, evoking the Jack the Ripper slayings across the Atlantic, capture Kriezler’s attention. With halting approval from Roosevelt, the good doctor sets out to undo the killer by first understanding the minds of his victims.
The series blends a mix of the salacious with the procedural in such a way as to lure in the audience and keep them hooked or turn them off completely. The graphic details of the first victim are the sort that will let you know exactly the kind of show you’re getting into. No doubt about it, the crimes central to the The Alienist are as dark and disturbing as they come, and given the increasingly loose restrictions on cable television, TNT is not shy with regard to the nature of the story it’s trying to depict. The mileage you get from seeing mutilated bodies examined using then-cutting edge forensic techniques may partially determine whether or not you stick around for the entire 10-episode run. To its credit, however, the series is keenly aware just how tonally oppressive an investigation into a string of brutal murders can be, and so it fills in the gaps with strong performances from its three leads.
For his part, Brühl plays Kriezler with a familiar sort of arms-length emotional detachment seen in most capital B “brilliant” investigators common to stories like this. Brühl has carved a niche for himself in this kind of role, creating driven characters with an exacting, chilly disposition who are nonetheless recognized for their genius. Kriezler is not unlike Brühl’s depiction of Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s Rush in that regard: technically proficient at the expense of outward emotion.
Evans and Fanning stand in stark contrast to Brühl, as they take on a sort of audience proxy role to different degrees. That the novel is told from Moore’s perspective is telling, mostly with regard to Carr’s understanding of detective fiction and the similarities that exist between Kriezler and Moore, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Like Watson, Moore humanizes the story just enough that Kriezler can be brilliant and detached without alienating the audience or leaving them cold. Similarly, Fanning’s depiction of the headstrong, confident, and barrier-breaking Sara, the first woman to work in the New York City police department, and her character’s growing fondness for Kriezler works again in the character’s favor: If these two like him, the assumption is we ought to as well. And for the most part it works,.
The first hour is mostly spent on introductions and establishing the nature of the crimes Kriezler and his cohort will be investigating. It’s a captivating start to the series that nonetheless hits some unintentional bumps in the road as far as establishing Kriezler’s antagonistic relationship with the police department and the inclusion of real-life historical figures. The depiction of Theodore Roosevelt stands out in a ay that does a disservice to the inclusion of the future 26th President of the United States. Though it may have run the risk of overshadowing the three leads, it feels like a missed opportunity for the series not to have cast an actor with a more significant screen presence in the role, one better suited to splitting the difference between grounding the narrative and proving its historical fiction bona fides. Though Geraghty does a fine job he exudes a boyish quality that reads counter to the persona around the man. Roosevelt’s role is small but essential enough it that the weight of a more recognizable performer may have elevated the series' profile and given more gravity to his scene.
Despite such limitations, The Alienist presents itself as a beautiful and disturbing period drama, albeit one that arrived two decades too late to truly capitalize on the buzz surrounding the novel and the anticipation of Carr’s follow-up, The Angel of Darkness. Watching the series you do get a sense that the moment for this particular story has come and gone, but the feeling of consolation mercifully doesn’t dilute the effectiveness of the narrative or the lavish production design.
The Alienist continues next Monday with ‘A Fruitful Partnership’ @10pm on TNT.