Spoiler warning for The Alienist finale.
Before talking about a second season, let’s get this out of the way: Yes, The Alienist was billed as a limited series, but almost every high-profile, expensive cable or premium drama is limited now unless the ratings are good enough to suggest a follow-up. The Alienist was a huge get for TNT, one that seems to suggest a network that is looking to pivot into more prestigious TV fare. It started making that move away from Law & Order reruns and towards original series a few years ago, with series like Animal Kingdom and Claws. But with The Alienist, TNT made a bolder pronouncement: it assembled a movie star cast, a host of behind-the-scenes talent, and filmed this huge, expensive, sprawling production overseas with cinematic grandiosity. The question now that we’ve seen the finale is: did it work?
The consensus with The Alienist seems to be that despite a pretty boiler-plate plot and an uneven pace, its gloriously detailed sets and costumes and overall atmosphere were enough to make it a worthwhile experience. It’s hard to love the show, but like consuming a pulp novel, it was an enjoyable watch each week. The finale concluded with enough of a resolution to feel like ending things here would be satisfying. Our heroes caught the killer, and maybe didn’t come to understand his motivations, but they created bonds of lasting friendship from the experience nevertheless. And yet, the finale also set up an easy segue into a second season, with this now-bonded group of investigators hungry for a new crime to solve, applying what they learned to catch a different killer.
Executive producer Rosalie Swedlin spoke to IndieWire about the possibilities of continuing the story, saying:
“We love the characters, and our goal when we set out to make the show was to tell the story of the book, which has a finite ending when they catch Beecham. At the moment, there are no plans for a further installment, but the whole process has been a great joy. So, who knows?”
When HBO’s Big Little Lies concluded, everyone involved was fairly adamant that the show was really over (and most people — though not me! — agreed that may be for the best), and yet, here we are preparing for Season 2. Swedlin’s comments certainly keep the door open for more Alienist, and frankly I say why not. The caveat is that it may be better to break free from Caleb Carr‘s novel (he wrote a sequel, The Angel of Darkness), and instead conceive of a new story.
The fact is that the aesthetics of The Alienist can only take the show so far — it needs to improve its script both dynamically and in the interactions among its leads (and give Teddy Roosevelt more to do than stand around). There were moments of visual brilliance in the show, ones that showed, rather than told us, the feelings of characters like Laszlo Kreizler as he sat alone at the dinner table, or Sara Howard as her corset left indentions in her skin. (The use of the opera was also inspired, if not ironic, in how we didn’t get much out of the story of Don Giovanni but man those images were gorgeously haunting). Stilted conversations like John telling Sara his feelings were less interesting (and more indicative of the show’s script problems) than their final interaction with her whistling for a cab and telling him, perhaps truly, that he only wants what he can’t have.
And yet, while the murderous Beecham was caught, not hearing his reasons for why he did what he did also leaves the door open for a further exploration of the connection between the psyche and crimes, especially as our core group bounces between high society and the slums. At the very least, The Alienist was a breathtakingly costumed potboiler, which isn’t a terrible thing to be. The question is whether it’s enough to make TNT want to invest in it for further seasons, or if it’s enough to simply toast, as Lazlo and his compatriots did, to a moderate success.