In 1896 New York City, the Williamsburg Bridge is under construction and a crazed murderer is on the loose
Even after establishing its peak TV cred with entries like Good Behavior and Claws, and even with Cary Fukunaga’s name prominently attached to The Alienist, the question remained in advance of this January 22 series premiere: Could this network, perhaps still best known as the home of the multi-day Law & Order marathon, really deliver on its promise of a grim, dark, HBO-grade crime drama set in 1896 New York City?
Fortunately, we get our answer right away in the form of a severed hand, lying like a ghastly still life in a snow-covered cobblestone street — with Detectives Briscoe and Green nowhere to be found.
The hand belongs to an unlucky teenage cross-dressing prostitute named Georgio; shortly thereafter, the rest (well, most of the rest) of Georgio is found atop the Williamsburg Bridge, a massive and ambitious undertaking that was still under construction at the time. Enter New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), rudely interrupted at his favorite brothel by a servant of the titular alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl). Kreizler wants Moore to draw the body and spare no gory detail — because it’s 1896, and taking nighttime photographs of crime scenes won’t be a thing for another half a decade. Crouched on the creaking wooden structure, buffeted by the wind, and struggling mightily not to vomit, Moore kneels down with charcoal in hand and draws Georgio’s final portrait: gouged-out eyes, ripped-up abdomen, severed genitals and all.
…Well, okay: not the genitals. But apart from its discreet approach to nudity, this show fully feels like a high-budget, premium production worthy of the same guy who brought us True Detective (the first season, that is). The Alienist is adapted from a novel by historian Caleb Carr, and although it was shot on location in Budapest, care was clearly taken that the book’s sweeping, expert attention to the details of turn-of-the-century New York didn’t get lost in translation. The cityscapes are busy, gritty, and vividly photographed with the same stylish flair as Guy Ritchie’s London in Sherlock Holmes; in other words, The Alienist is gorgeous to look at even when the script falters or a performance falls flat — or when the soundtrack gets a little too extra about trying to set a mood. (Lest the child murders and police corruption didn’t clue you in to the fact that this story is Serious Business, this episode includes roughly 15,000 moments in which Kreizler stares at something or someone while a cello makes ominous noises in the background.)
Kreizler, who runs a school for problem children when he’s not investigating sadistic criminals (students include young arsonists, bed-wetters, and boys who like to wear dresses) interviews the chief suspect in Georgio’s murder and comes away convinced that the police have got the wrong guy. (This suspicion is also later confirmed for us, the audience, by a quickie scene in which an unseen person makes a back-alley snack out of some of Georgio’s missing body parts.) Turns out, the doctor once had a patient named Benjamin Zweig, a little boy who also liked to wear girls’ clothing and whose body was found similarly mutilated after he and his sister went missing; the parallels to Georgio’s case are undeniable, and Kreizler is convinced that the same person murdered both boys.
But when bringing his theory to his old friend, beleaguered Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), doesn’t have the desired result, the alienist assembles a ragtag group of misfits to help him solve it himself. The team includes Moore, two Jewish forensic scientists named Isaacson (Douglas Smith; Matthew Shear), and the first female employee of the NYPD ever, Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning, wearing an outfit with period-appropriate yet ludicrously huge sleeves). Together they’re going to break rules, push boundaries, anger authority figures, and hopefully catch a killer — while also forging the kind of camaraderie that makes us love to watch them work.
Or at least, that’s the idea; for now, this is one area where The Alienist has a lot of room for improvement. Fanning is especially and uncharacteristically wooden in her role (in fairness, it’s hard to act when you’re being upstaged in every scene by your sleeves), and the whole cast lacks chemistry, which they’re going to need in order to save this show from being a bleak, self-serious bore that’s interesting to look at but not much fun to watch. But there’s plenty of promise here, too: in an intriguing scene where Howard takes off her corset and smokes a cigarette, luxuriating in the kind of solitude rarely afforded women at the time; in the historical backdrop of old New York, a rich tapestry of immigrants and prostitutes and cops and horse-drawn carriages careening through muddy streets; and in the tantalizing search for a murderer, at a time when the science of hunting criminals was only just entering its fascinating infancy. Forensics, fingerprinting, psychological profiling: None of these things exist yet in the world of The Alienist, but the pilot is ripe with the pleasant anticipation of seeing them innovated.
And as the premiere draws to a close, the action heats up: Kreizler finds a severed human tongue left in his carriage, and gives chase to the cloaked figure who left it there. The scene moves out of the busy street and ends up in an attic, with the gobsmacked Kreizler and Moore staring up — way up— at a hole in the roof through which their quarry escaped. An additional layer of mystery: Not only is this murderer a violent maniac, but he’s got serious hops.
In the end, Kreizler makes the decision that’ll presumably shape the rest of the series: to not just study the killer, but “become him,” using the same empathic approach that he employs on the kids in his care. (The momentousness of this choice is conveyed, as always, by the ubiquitous ominous cellos.) At the same time, somewhere in the warren of the city’s Lower East Side, a little boy flees from some older bullies and finds himself down a dark alley that’s almost deserted, but not quite. We don’t see the man who approaches him, but we see through his eyes as the boy turns, surprised, tears still fresh on his cheeks.
“What’s wrong, child?” he whispers — and the scene cuts to black before the boy can answer. But suffice it to say that the next time we see this kid, he’ll probably be in several pieces.
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