There are no aliens in The Alienist. That’s the first thing you have to wrap your mind around. The second thing is that President Theodore Roosevelt is a main character, back when he was police commissioner for New York City, and he’s the most disappointing part of the show.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been let down by Teddy before, so the cast’s weak link comes as a surprise in the midst of the historical crime drama. The Alienist is about the invention of forensic psychology at the turn of the century (“alienists” were old-timey psychologists), and the strange combination of professions it took to sniff out the most heinous of crimes before technology allowed everyone to be as diversely specialized as need be.
This group includes alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), brother detectives Marcus and Lucius Isaacson (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear), and Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty). Let’s get this out of the way now: Geraghty is poorly cast and delivers in kind. When you cast such a bombastic role, with such a solidified image in the American psyche, you have to play into it or undermine it hard with little-known facts. Here, Geraghty is merely milquetoast and serviceable—two things Theodore Roosevelt would’ve knocked your teeth in for if he heard you describe him as such. Aside from that, this ragtag group is pulled together by schoolmate loyalty and a common sense of justice, looking to solve the gruesome murder of a young male prostitute.
And gruesomeness is as intentional to the production as the New York name drops. TNT and director Jakob Verbruggen (who tackled the first three episodes) may weasel in a line from J.P. Morgan, but a few seconds later, that schmaltz is irreparably stained by an empty set of eye sockets. The serial killer hunting isn’t the main draw for this show, but the abject horror at this avulsion and mutilation is refreshingly intact.
True to its source, Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name, The Alienist’s most appealing parts are its pieces of historical fascination and its aesthetic dedication to replicating that fascination in a story both adventurous and studious. The group is composed of relatively soft men (and one relatively soft woman)—with ideas, words and not much else—who all stand above a world of graft and corruption run by the institutions of more traditional masculinity. This is the Gilded Age, when politics, policing, and criminal enterprise were increasingly blurred activities.
This means that this investigation operates on the fringes of the law. That adds some of the only tension the show manages to find in its labyrinthine writing. Because Moore is a police reporter in the book, this career adjustment to illustrator makes him all the more ill-equipped and keen to collaborate on this investigation. Evans gives the performance a fallibility that could be fright or intellectual intimidation, but is mirrored by the sheer competency and off-puttingness of Brühl.
The Alienist’s creative team had to sex things up a bit from its source, leaning a bit more on the flask-drinking, prostitute-frequenting main characters than on the psychological debates, but the result is a world that feels dangerous, exciting, and on the right side of the steampunk look. Though the large ensemble is hit and miss, this may be the prettiest thing TNT has ever aired. Bridges of wood and metal tower over snowy, carriage-crowded streets, while a police force of corrupt Irishmen remind you that it might be time to give Gangs of New York a much-overdue rewatch. Great fore- and background costume work compliment crowded sets dressed just as well; the visual craft of the show is as magnificent in its lush interiors as walking its stark, busy corridor-like streets.
This lovely, engaging city is such an appealing environment for the show’s clichéd dramatic beats (Fanning goading Evans with threats of cowardice) that they’re almost forgivable. Fanning is another weak spot for the series. Her character is written as fiery, but she delivers her lines with a mouthful of ashes; she’s there, it seems, mainly to show the appalling conditions faced by her sex in the era before women’s suffrage. On the other end of the the spectrum are the actors doing more with less, namely Smith and Shear as the Isaacson brothers, who are a lot of fun as a tag-team comedy/detective act, rubbing their bumbling Jewishness in New York’s anti-Semitic face. Hell, Lucius even becomes a socialist just to get laid, which is as telling as anything that history repeats itself.
Some admirable attempts at jettisoning exposition (at only ten episodes, there’s scant room in the season for it) leave the scripts with plenty of room for other, stranger sidebars, which, while aimed at characterization, often land on the wrong side of shaggy. That said, there’s no lack of interesting material. It’s just that the way the series is structured that undermines its tensions. Too many hints of the killer, or too few, haunt the team with erratic knowledge that never builds up, while the pacing hiccups like a Model T. You wouldn’t think a scene about a drunk man wandering a brothel dealing in underage cross-dressing boys (then hiring one of these workers) would be boring, but everything in the show is paced so slowly that we simply find ourselves alienated.
The Alienist premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on TNT. Watch our interview with star Daniel Brühl here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.