REVIEW: The Alienist Is a Sure-Footed, Richly Sinister Drama
Adapted from Caleb Carr’s 1994 best seller, The Alienist plops us down in 1896 Manhattan, a town as gloomy, foul and filthy as the Victorian London of Penny Dreadful. Here, though, the monsters aren’t supernatural. Which makes them potentially scarier.
A boy prostitute has been murdered. This, and the fact that he was dressed as a girl, would be of no interest to anyone outside the city’s grimy underworld, except for the killer’s unusually brutal desecration of the corpse. The case is taken up by Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl, who played Zemo in Captain America: Civil War). He’s a psychologist who goes by the professional tag of that time, “alienist.” Today, of course, this is our term for people who chase UFOs.
In the first of two episodes made available for review, we learn that Dr. Kreizler has previously speculated on the notion of gender identity—his views are progressive and not too out of sync with our own—and that there have been prior killings that echo this most recent death. He investigates with the help of a newspaper illustrator (Beauty and the Beast’s Luke Evans) and a police secretary (The Twilight Saga’s Dakota Fanning)—the city’s authorities are too corrupt to be trusted.
The opening episodes are sure-footed, despite all the muck and gunk of a production that so beautifully re-creates the 19th-century Big Apple, with its bad air, bad streets and bad slums. Nothing here looks quite as awful and primitive as the cave tenements of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. But that was set in the 1860s. You have to allow for some small degree of urban planning.
The richly sinister atmosphere is matched by deeply disturbing details that have a way of sparking in the gloom. At the least, you’ll learn to steer clear of a type of dagger called the Arkansas toothpick.
The series premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.