If you’re going into The Alienist completely blind, you may be disappointed to find that it isn’t about the supernatural. Instead, it dives into the human condition, using criminal psychology to look inside a serial killer’s mind. Last year, criminal profiling shows seemed to come back in style with Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber and Netflix’s Mindhunter. Now, TNT is following the trend with The Alienist, the most expensive show in its history. This beautifully grim mini-series doesn’t shy away from the grotesque and uses graphic imagery to move the plot forward (it’s honestly surprising that a show this gory is on cable TV rather than HBO).
In the Gilded Age, an alienist was a doctor who treated patients with mental illnesses (they were said to be alienated from their own nature). Dr. Laszlo Kriesler (Daniel Brühl) is an alienist who helps treat children who “are not themselves” (and by that, I mean they were caught masturbating or cross-dressing). Dr. Kreisler provides a space for them to be their true selves without judgment from others. The local police department thinks him a nuisance and prevent him from entering any crime scenes.
After hearing about a local murder, he has his colleague, illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) fight his way onto the scene to illustrate the crime for him. The victim is a young boy prostitute in girls clothing mutilated with his eyes eaten out by birds. Director Jakob Verbruggen doesn’t hold anything back in depicting the torments that this boy endured and it may be too much for some to handle (the camera literally zooms into one of the boy’s empty eyeholes). This murder reminds Dr. Kreisler of a horrific crime that happened to two of his patients in the past. The girl was killed without any mutilation, but her brother had his innards gutted similar to the boy prostitute.
The story’s politics are made clear in the first episode. The police department is corrupt, and businessmen exploit young boys for pleasure. The only official who seems to want genuine reform is police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty). He genuinely wants to know who has been committing these murders but doesn’t want Kriesler anywhere near the premises.
Kriesler convinces his secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), to sneak out police documents to help with the case. Because she is the first woman to be hired in the police department, the men have taken to sexually harassing her and assuming she’s a delicate little flower. But when she’s off the clock, we quickly find out that she’s anything but. She smokes, talks back, and analyzes police documents faster than anyone she works with. She’s one of the most fascinating characters because of how often she keeps surprising everyone around her. Some of the better dialogue happens when Kriesler and Howard have back and forths about human nature and its motivations. Unfortunately, this causes a minor love triangle to sprout between her, Moore, and Kriesler, but it does nothing to diminish her character.
While The Alienist succeeds in style, the story is where its weaknesses lie. The series obviously has inspirations from NBC’s Hannibal with its philosophical messages hiding underneath the dead bodies. But unlike Hannibal, The Alienist fails to leave the audience to think for themselves. Verbruggen already has a path paved and leads viewers down without letting them think outside the box. For a show that’s all about psychology, everything feels a little too black and white.
With a disturbing soundtrack and detailed production design, the whole show feels dirty. The showrunners seem to take joy in making the audience squirm in their seats through the gouged eyes of young boys. At times, it feels like it’s used just for shock value, especially since these first two episodes have been a very slow-burn. But nonetheless, The Alienist has plenty of steam left in it and has the potential to be a very intriguing whodunnit mystery. But the question is, will they be able to keep the audience’s’ attention?
This review is of the first two episodes of The Alienist. The show airs on TNT Mondays at 9/8c.