'The Alienist': TV Review
Caleb Carr's best-seller finally makes it to the screen in a TNT adaptation full of solid performances and gorgeous, creepy visuals.
When Caleb Carr's The Alienist became a best-seller in 1994, the idea of a 10-episode miniseries that could deliver prestige and also handle the book's layers of world-building and adult subject matter was basically inconceivable. So Hollywood spent a decade trying and failing to condense the plotty tome into a movie with a parade of A-list directors attached (including Curtis Hanson and Philip Kaufman).
Even once The Alienist found its proper approach on TV, there were another 10 years of loosely associated networks and showrunners and directors.
The result is that the version of The Alienist premiering on TNT on Jan. 22 isn't necessarily the medium-redefining story it could have been, nor the buzzy re-imagining of serial killer lore the book briefly felt like. Instead, The Alienist plays like a time-traveling installment of True Detective — Cary Fukunaga was even set to direct at one point and retains an executive producer credit, along with several collaborators from previous incarnations — or a 19th century version of Mindhunter, still delivering in sumptuous period production values and strong ensemble casting what it maybe lacks in freshness.
Set in New York City in 1896, The Alienist begins with the horrifying discovery of a mutilated body of a young boy in women's clothing. An underage prostitute in a brothel catering to a wealthy clientele with illicit appetites, the immigrant victim is too poor to be of interest to the police no matter how grotesque the nature of his death. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), an expert in the newfangled study of people "alienated from their natures," begins to believe this murder is part of a string committed by the same disturbed perpetrator and he forms a gumshoe team that comes to include New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), a rising police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) and wealthy proto-feminist Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).
Through the first two episodes, adaption credited to Hossein Amini and Fukunaga, Bruhl and Evans are solid stars, the former emphasizing a softspoken inquisitiveness and the latter a brasher, more emotion-on-sleeve interest in the unfolding horror. Mostly absent from the small screen since her juvenile breakout in the miniseries Taken, Fanning makes for a feisty and grown-up female lead, often utilizing Michael Kaplan's costumes to give an unspoken look at the challenges of being both strong and feminine in this historical moment. I'm not yet sold on Geraghty's performance as Roosevelt, which doesn't connect with the fiery image of the future president, but the arc of the show could be trace the character from something almost meek to a more iconic Teddy. Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear, as a pair of forward-thinking Jewish investigators, offer the few hints of humor in this moody piece.
Having read the book, I know that Cyrus, Mary Palmer and Stevie Taggert all play big roles in this story, so I await getting to see what Robert Wisdom, Q'orianka Kilcher and Matt Lintz will get to do. The early episodes are dominated by solid character actors in scruffy facial hair proficiently playing cops and local ruffians.
As was the case with Carr's novel, The Alienist is set before the birth of modern forensic science, enlightened interest in mental illness or even the most rudimentary awareness of serial killers and part of its fascination is in looking at the ways its characters are both presciently modern in some instances and trapped by superstitions, primitive technologies and wild misunderstandings.
It is, fundamentally, a story about vast class divisions in turn-of-the-century Manhattan and it's in realizing this world that The Alienist finds its greatest success. Part of why The Alienist always needed to be longer than a film was so that a pivotal dinner in Delmonico's could revel prolongedly in course-by-course upper-crust excess soon after characters navigated the cramped, disease-ridden ethnic tenement. From the high-ceilinged, portrait-lined sitting rooms of the elite to the nightmare-per-room cacophony of the Bellevue Asylum to claustrophobic burlesque whorehouses, The Alienist boasts a series of well-explored sets from production designer Mara LePere-Schloop and her team. Eschewing the dirty realism that Steven Soderbergh brought to a comparable period in The Knick, cinematographer PJ Dillon and director Jakob Verbruggen hit a high-style aesthetic of evocative fog, sharp shadows and frame-filling, perspective teasing camera angles. Going for something in the pulp, graphic novel vein — shades of From Hell don't seem out of place — helps Verbruggen get away with a reasonable amount of the novel's gorier material, which is presented in either baroque tableaus or through Moore's illustrations. Verbruggen knows a thing or two about generating modern serial killer menace after helming the first season of The Fall, but actually resists a lot of the victim-in-peril exploitation that sometimes bothered me in that show. Here, he builds mood and menace.
One way the long page-to-screen lag may benefit The Alienist is in lowering expectations. Like the book, the TNT adaptation is best approached as nicely polished pulp with a historical backdrop adding substance, rather than as anything intending to rewrite the rules of the genre. It's evocative, handsome and just a little disturbing, without the pressure to blow anybody away emotionally.
Cast: Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, Brian Geraghty, Dakota Fanning, Robert Ray Wisdom, Douglas Smith, Matthew Shear, Q'orianka Kilcher, Matt Lintz
Adapted by: Hossein Amini and Cary Joji Fukunaga
Airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on TNT, premiering Jan. 22.