The story is set in New York in 1896, where the grit and grime contrast with the Gilded Age wealth. It's a whole lot of mud, horses, smoke and whorehouses. The mutilated body of a boy has been deposited in a particularly grisly fashion on the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge. What's a police commissioner like Teddy Roosevelt (yes, the future president) supposed to do when faced with the prospect of a serial killer who preys on child prostitutes — besides secretly hire an "alienist," a doctor practicing the strange art of what would come to be known as psychological profi—
Wait, this sounds familiar, doesn't it? It should. As a novel, Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" ruled the bestseller lists in the mid-1990s. For very Hollywood sorts of reasons, the film rights languished in development hell for another quarter-century. In that time, all sorts of rainy, gloomy, lavishly rendered fin-de-siecle suspense movies and TV shows (not to mention the entire steampunk craze) came and went, with their vampires, Jack the Rippers, spiffy inspectors, extraordinary gentlemen and corseted heroines.
So it's up to "The Alienist," premiering Monday on TNT, to come up with a good excuse for being tardy to a party that it rightfully started.
As a moody and essentially faithful adaptation of Carr's novel, the series gets off to a chilly yet satisfying start, an adequate entry to a particular genre that features dim lighting, resourceful urchins, a class-conscious tone and the sort of arftul staging of corpses that signifies brilliant derangement on the part of the killer. Watching this, you realize just how many serious period mysteries owe a debt of thanks to the "The Alienist."
Paying respect, however, is different from being entertained. "The Alienist" is saddled with some unfortunately trite dialogue that the actors never seem comfortable saying, at least not without using their schmancy, neither-here-nor-there accents. Peppered with cliches and predictable banter, "The Alienist" relies mostly on its atmospheric details to draw viewers in.
Daniel Brühl stars as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an alienist who studies deviant behavior and has a specialty practice in treating "damaged" children. His friend and fellow Harvard alum, John Moore (Luke Evans), works as a newspaper illustrator and, at Kreizler's occasional request, as a crime-scene sketch artist.
Once Kreizler sees Moore's gory drawings of the murdered boy on the bridge, he insists on visiting Commissioner Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) to ask for access to the case files and offer his services, which Roosevelt would just as soon decline. Kreizler, regarded in social circles as a strange quack, nevertheless makes a convincing argument that the killer has struck before in the previous murders of twins, a sister and brother. (The boy had been brought to Kreizler to "cure" his desire to dress like a girl; the case and its outcome have troubled the doctor since.)
Intrigued by all this, Roosevelt's secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), gets increasingly involved in the case, even as Moore tries gallantly to protect her from seeing the worst and bloodiest of it. She obtains files from within the corrupt New York Police Department and agrees to act as a liaison between Kreizler and her boss. Roosevelt, meanwhile, tasks a pair of forensically inclined detectives, brothers Marcus and Lucius Isaacson (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear), to work with Kreizler.
Both Kreizler and Moore develop feelings for Howard, who is more interested in her real goal — to become the city's first female police detective. The killer, meanwhile, is already identifying his next victim.
"Each and every one of the choices he makes," Kreizler says, "reveal a hidden aspect of his alienated mind."
While "The Alienist" has style to spare, the first two episodes don't make the strongest case for a viewer to stick around — a case that's harder and harder to make these days, when so many TV shows look like more (and more and more) of the same. The dark alleys, the fog banks, the filthy streets, the mortuary lab, the bordello decor. You're not mistaken to think you've seen it all before.
The Alienist (one hour) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on TNT.