The Alienist: Can It Escape the Shadow of Shows That Came Before?

The Alienist Cast
Photo Courtesy of TNT

TNT’s latest attempt at entering the top-tier of prestige television is The Alienist, an adaptation of a beloved modern classic first published in the mid-1990s. But in the many years it took Caleb Carr’s novel to transition from the page to the small screen, another mystery writer, Nic Pizzolatto, dominated pop culture with a little phenomenon called  True Detective.

As a result, it’s almost impossible to shake the feeling that The Alienist is a 19th century edition of the once-popular miniseries – they even have a producer in common,  Cary Joji Fukunaga. This begs the question: how can a forensic series stand out in a sea of high-quality television, during an age where there are many shows exploring similar themes. In it’s premiere episode, The Alienist tries its hardest to impress viewers, to varying degrees of success.

The Alienist, wisely, wastes no time in setting up its story, as the opening seconds depict a police officer finding the body of a young boy, clad in a dress and mutilated almost beyond recognition. The boy, we learn, was a child prostitute, forced into sex work by vicious gangsters who have a small group of children they use for sinister purposes. But why, exactly, was this boy targeted?

While the police have quickly pinned the crime on a mentally ill man found near the scene of the crime, alienist (read: criminal psychiatrist) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) is convinced that there is more to the murder than meets the eye. Joined by his sort-of sidekick, newspaper reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the eager secretary at the local police department, the unlikely trio look to solve the murder – though it looks like more dead bodies are just on the horizon.

Love it or hate it, one cannot deny that The Alienist is both ambitious and beautiful to look at. While not all of the story threads really stand out in the series premiere, there is enough going on  to pull the audience in. Aside from the murder mystery itself, subplots about police corruption, gang politics, and racism are all introduced.

The overall scope of the series, and the way it ties more complex themes into the main narrative, is quite impressive, and elevates the mystery above the level of your average crime procedural. The show also has film-level cinematography and stunning costumes, an impressive feat even as the television industry slowly raises the bar when it comes to its production quality. And while Luke Evans comes off as a bit ham-fisted at times, both Brühl and Fanning bring an eerie, totally compelling edge to their roles.

That being said, the series does run into problems with some of its subplots, namely the ham-fisted way the series explores feminism and the patriarchal restrictions put on women in the 1890s. The show is, of course, well-meaning in its depiction of sexism, and its hard to fault them for trying to discuss a serious subject matter, especially given our current political climate and the way many of the series’ peers have ignored women in favor of brooding white men. But this is a very on-the-nose depiction of sexism that feels unmistakably written by a man, whose understanding of the subject is rudimentary at best. Any man could write about sexism based on what they hear women say about the topic, but this writing lacks the nuance and believability that a female writer could have brought to the screen.

But, of course, the main reason to tune into The Alienist is the mystery, and it’s an awfully compelling one. There are some truly disquieting scenes, and a chase through an abandoned building that is genuinely chilling and well paced. The series also has its fair share of gory, Hannibal-esque moments for audiences to shield their eyes from, but these moments don’t feel exploitative or gratuitous. While we’ll have to wait and see if the mystery reaches a satisfying end, The Alienist gives us plenty of reasons to come back for next week’s episode.

As far as TV pilots go, The Alienist is not a total home run. Fair or not, it’s going to be hard to shake the comparisons from other crime series. But this is an intriguing mystery, made even better by film-like production quality. Hopefully, by the end of its run, viewers will understand what readers went crazy for almost twenty years ago.

Overall rating: 7 out of 10

The Alienist airs Monday nights on TNT