2017 gave us several TV series that focused on the evolving methods behind capturing notorious criminals. In Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber, we learned about forensic linguistics, developed by the FBI’s Jim Fitzgerald that helped connect Ted Kaczynski to his crimes. Going back a few decades earlier, Netflix’s Mindhunter follows the FBI’s early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling, through the lens of the Behavioral Sciences Unit. Now, TNT’s The Alienist, based on Caleb Carr’s book of the same name, goes back almost a century earlier to the very nascence of connecting forensics and psychology, as madness was defined as being “alienated” from one’s own nature, giving the name “alienist” to those who study the afflicted.
When The Alienist begins, our alienist himself Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), has been at work for many years and has something of a reputation. The New York politicians and police seem to mostly consider him a nuisance, but the work he does in trying to understand the human mind, and in treating children with “unusual” personalities by letting them be themselves, cannot be ignored. The series then immediately connects our leads — Kreizler, alongside his society friend and illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), and the young police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) — through one unrelentingly brutal murder.
It is that murder (or the aftermath of it) that really defines The Alienist. It does not shy away from the graphic violence inflicted onto the corpse of the child (so much so that we actually, in one particularly harrowing shot, travel with the camera through a gaping eye-hole). The placement of the corpse, and Moore’s later illustration of it, immediately becomes an iconic image within the series. There are other visual place-markers like this one, not all of them essential to the plot, but all essential to the atmosphere. (A brief scene with an opera singer in a vibrant court jester costume, from “Rigoletto” perhaps, leaves a lasting impression).
Director Jakob Verbruggen has a very specific aesthetic he wants to convey, with exquisite attention to detail. But there’s something more, thanks to the show’s simmering soundtrack and a terribly gleeful foley artist, that creates a terrible sense of dread that permeates the production. Upon the discovery of the mutilated boy on a snowy night, a police officer starts banging his baton against a metal pole, with reverberations that echo throughout the city as a warning and an alarm. It is alarming, as well as haunting and exceptionally creepy.
On the other side of The Alienist, though, is the gilded world of 1890s New York, which is as sumptuously and lavishly detailed as the darker places of the city are in grime and despair. The story’s politics are clear, from the portrayal of the abusive and corrupt police force to the inhumane treatment of children by exploitative businessmen, but there is also hope. Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) plays a pivotal role as the police commissioner, one who is interested in sincere reforms. But as Sara Howard discovers, the young victim was not the first boy, nor first prostitute, to be murdered by the brutal killer — something the police force has been covering up.