It’s New York, 1896, and the discovery of the mutilated body of a young boy calls for a new, but very different approach to crime solving. Enter The Alienist.
In the 19th Century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.
It’s been said that we live in the Golden Age of television. As networks learn from mistakes past, and as high-calibre actors realize that they can headline in and profit from prestige studio productions, we are most certainly spoiled for choice nowadays. For me, shows like Deadwood and Damages started this current renaissance. They brought us The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire – high-quality fare, as everyone would agree. Not all shows make the cut, though; Deadwood itself was unceremoniously cancelled just as it was hitting its stride. But it’s heartening to see networks continuing to invest in dramas that they hope will find an audience, and oftentimes they could spend a number of years trying to bring a piece of work to the small screen. Such is the case with The Alienist.
Written by Caleb Carr and published in 1994, The Alienist was an international bestseller and immediately optioned for the big screen. Big name directors were attached to a possible adaptation, but 24 years after its publication, The Alienist found its home on the TNT network. And it’s a sumptuous if grisly affair.
Set in fin-de siècle New York, the so-called Gilded Age, the rich live well, while the poor are oppressed, exploited, and generally looked upon as an inconvenience. (Much like 2018, so.) The NYPD is replete with Irish-Americans who, if they’re not on the take, they’re boozing and acting all misogynistic as if this kind of behavior is acceptable – which, of course, it was (and still is nowadays). Theodore Roosevelt – the man who would be president – is the new police commissioner, and he’s in the midst of reforming a crooked police department. He’s played with quiet intensity by Irish-American actor Brian Geraghty. Part of what Roosevelt is trying to do is modernize policing and crime investigation in New York. That means working with people and concepts that are alien to almost everyone in the department. It’s the dawn of forensic science and criminal profiling, and not everyone is on board. It seems most are happy to take backhanders from property owners and indulge in a little anti-Semitism on the side. However, change is on the way, and at the start of the episode we see how bad things are going to get before any headway is gained.
“The Boy on the Bridge” begins with the gruesome discovery of the mutilated body of a young boy on the Williamsburg Bridge that connects the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. The boy is quickly identified as Georgio (Gloria) Santorelli, a child prostitute who dressed himself as a girl while plying his trade. Thanks to his eyes on the street, Dr Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), the renowned alienist of the title gets word to his friend John Moore (Luke Evans), a newspaper illustrator, who dashes to the scene of the crime to take drawings. Moore is a friend of Roosevelt and knows him from their Harvard days. But while Roosevelt has risen to the near top of his profession, Moore spends most of his evenings and money with prostitutes. He’s a drinker and a womanizer who, we feel, is looking for connection and purpose. It’s a case of being careful what you wish for.
Shortly after, we’re introduced to the final member of our triumvirate. Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) is the first woman to be employed full-time by the NYPD and she’s Roosevelt’s secretary. She also has a “history” with Moore, one that’s obviously going to have relevance as the season goes on. At work she’s enclosed in petticoats and girdles, subjected to the leering and outright sexist behavior of her male colleagues, while at home she’s a wealthy woman with a steely resolve for justice and morality. She wants to be a detective, not a secretary.
Over the course of the hour, The Alienist covers a lot of ground. In a show with a period setting, atmosphere is key. One of my favourite Sherlock Holmes movie adaptations is Murder by Decree, a handsome looking grand guignol of a movie that starred Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson. It was a movie that nailed the setting of 1880s London – all fog, hansom cabs, conspiracy theories, corruption, and bloody corpses. (If you haven’t yet seen this movie, I highly recommend you do so. Holmes and Watson are on the trail of Jack the Ripper.) The Alienist reminds me so much of Murder by Decree. The attention to detail is stunning. Another production that springs to mind is the BBC/Amazon television series Ripper Street. In fact, I look upon The Alienist as Ripper Street’s twin sibling. It’s that good. Both shows feature the use and importance of forensic science for the first time in criminal investigations. Politics and corruption play an important role, too.
By the end of the series premiere, Kreizler finds a connection between the Santorelli murder to one from three years previously when two children were found murdered. The boy in that case was encouraged to cross-dress by Kreizler, a decision, his mother believes, led to his and his sister’s brutal killing.
I found certain elements of the show uncomfortable to watch. The exploitation of children is a harrowing subject, but to see them being used for wealthy men’s sexual gratification hits close to home particularly when you see what’s happening in the entertainment business right now, as well as clerical abuse worldwide. I hope The Alienist doesn’t shy away from the hideousness of these crimes and opens the door to retribution and understanding. There is much to unpack in this show, and there are ten episodes in this miniseries to allow the material to flow naturally.
Helmed by Jacob Verbruggen (The Fall) and produced among others by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), The Alienist’s opening installment is written by Hossein Amini (Drive, The Two Faces of January), and it’s a lavish piece of television superbly acted by Brühl, Evans, and Fanning. As the series progresses, we’ll no doubt see much more of the secondary characters, particularly Cyrus Montrose (Robert Ray Wisdom), Kreiszler’s black manservant, and Stevie Taggert (Matt Lintz), a boy Kreizler rescued from Belleview Hospital (think Bedlam but with slightly better sanitation). But for now, the focus is clearly on how Kreizler, Moore, and Sara come together, despite the differences in personality and motivation, and attempt to solve this case. It’s a slow-burner, but it’s a show I feel that’s well worth sticking around for.
The Alienist S1E1 Review Score
"The Boy on the Bridge"
The Alienist – Episode 1: The Boy on the Bridge | Starring: Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans | Directed by: Jakob Verbruggen | Written by: Hossein Amini, Kristina Lauren Anderson