Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans are born co-stars. Brühl is somehow boyish and intense, ideal casting if you need a charming fascist (Inglourious Basterds) or an endearing priggish gearhead (Rush). Evans is the kind of handsome that plays Zeus, Apollo, and Dracula, but he always looks a little uncomfortable, like he knows those distant sirens are coming for him. In the ten-episode mystery The Alienist, Brühl and Evans are a dynamic investigative duo: a criminal psychologist and a journalist. It’s not-quite-but-almost-is a Sherlock Holmes story: In his 1994 novel of the same name, Caleb Carr used the familiar layout of a detective thriller to explore the high-low society of 1890s New York.
And whenever Brühl and Evans share the screen, they spark the TNT drama to life. Brühl plays Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an “alienist” at a time when people afflicted with mental illness were said to be alienated from their own true natures. Evans is John Moore, an illustrator for the New York Times. Kreizler’s a cerebral brainiac fascinated with the evil that men do. Moore is a hedonist with a melancholy streak, introduces role-playing in a house of ill repute, and also humane enough to vomit at the sight of a destroyed human body.
The Alienist begins with a body, as so many dark TV dramas do today. The TNT series was briefly going to be the next TV series directed by True Detective helmer Cary Fukunaga, who ultimately stepped back into an executive producer role. You can see the crossover appeal. Like True Detective, Carr’s novel begins with a brutal murder, half-sexual and half-mystical, before spiraling into a larger portrait of societal corruption. There’s an added historical kick here. Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) is the Police Commissioner. J.P Morgan (Michael Ironside) is still a person, not just a bank. New York law is stapled together between an overreaching police department and insidious underworld bosses. When the body of a boy prostitute is found mutilated—no eyes in the sockets, and worse—police focus less on the horror of the crime and more on the fact that the body was found wearing a dress. Kreizler believes this new murder links to one of his earlier cases: A little boy and girl, the former wanting to dress in the latter’s clothes, both found dead under mysterious circumstances. The police don’t care about a connection—or are actively burying the case.
Like a lot of recent dramas, you feel that no expense has been spared. Gilded Age New York is rendered with painstaking detail, dirty streets and gleaming high-society functions. Like a lot of shows in the post-Boardwalk Empire phase, The Alienist almost seems a little too proud of its sizable production budget. The two episodes I’ve seen are slow—”atmospheric” would be the kinder word—and a little too painstaking in observing how Dr. Kreizler assembles a team of investigators around him. Actually, the assembly happens late in the second episode, in a fancy restaurant, preceded by a long sequence involving multiple waiters, meals, and a long walk through glittering sets. You can’t tell who’s showing off, the alienist or The Alienist. You want to scream “Get on with it!” to both of them.
Will the plot thicken? I worry that this adaptation is arriving at Peak Murder Chic. Carr’s novel struck a chord in the early-’90s rush of serial killer fiction, coming smack between The Silence of the Lambs and Seven. The TNT drama arrives at the tail end of the post-Dexter bumper crop, lacks the visceral thrill of Hannibal and the slippery dark comedy of Mindhunter. It’s aiming for a sensitive portrait of a macro-aggressive time period, and carefully demarcates how Kreizler’s crew stands in quite opposition to the cartoonishly blunt police department. His autopsies are conducted by the Isaacson Brothers (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear), who aren’t liked much by their fellow policemen. They’re too modern … and Jewish. His coterie includes orphans and people of color (including characters played by Robert Ray Wisdom and Q’orianka Kilcher, fine actors with little to do in these opening episodes.)
And then there’s Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the first woman employed by the police department. Fanning gives a chilly, impassive performance, which matches the mood of this chilly, impassive show. She does get to give my favorite line of 2018 so far. When noble sap Moore claims that she’s too (ahem) womanly for this dark work, she doesn’t miss a beat snapping back at him. “Every panderer, mock, lush, and billynoodle in this city pass through the doors of the police department,” she declares. “Not to mention the mutton-shunters I work with!”
So The Alienist wants to honor the dishonored of a dishonorable era. Admirable, and intriguing. Ted Levine shows up for a brief scene in the debut episode as the (real-life) previous Police Chief, radiating dark glee. (The former cop mentions that he’s “speculating on Wall Street,” and Levine makes it sound like some flirtatious devil’s work.) But the first two episodes fall into some cliché, too, teasing more than they tantalize. There are regular cuts to a shadowy distant figure who has kidnapped a child, the kind of shameless tease that Syfy’s Happy! just recently parodied with a demonic Santa Claus. And Kreizler’s methods feel on the nose. “His acts are so wretched, so evil,” he muses about the mysterious killer. “Only if I become him, if I cut the child’s throat myself, if I run my knife through the helpless body … only then will I come to truly understand what I am.”
A detective who gets a little too close to the monster he’s chasing: Not too original, and even less compelling when it’s served up so gradually. The Alienist even has the moment you cherish from every renegade-cop story, when the crusty police chief says: “Just because you live by your own set of rules doesn’t mean I will!” Somehow it sounds lame even when Teddy Roosevelt says it.