“You’ve caused me a sleepless night, Laszlo. The first of many, I suspect.”
It’s so interesting and frustrating when a story shows up late to its own party.
Last October, Mindhunter premiered on Netflix. Set in 1977 and steeped in dread, the show follows the early days of criminal psychology, after two FBI agents realize how unequipped law enforcement is to deal with “sequence killers,” and start interviewing imprisoned serial killers to see if patterns emerge. With the 1970s comfortably in the realm of period piece, and with modern audiences more savvy about serial-killer stories than any of the characters, the show draws an impressive amount of suspense from the sheer hit-or-miss involved.
Enter The Alienist. Caleb Carr’s bestseller (published in 1994) revels in the same sense of terra incognita; it’s a serial-killer story in a time when phrenology was more widely accepted as a science than fingerprinting. It’s all so new that there’s a veneer of the supernatural about their endeavor, from the mere existence of alienists on up. And it’s a story that knows we know how this kind of story goes, which gives this adaptation some Mindhunter parallels fairly early on, and likely there will only be more.
And that’s not the only template this show is pushing against. The book is also a pulp detective story—at times nearly a Victorian pastiche—that relies on many procedural cheap thrills. Any issues surrounding the victims are presented with titillating detail and faux concern. (It’s a combination that reflects the nineteenth-century’s macabre curiosity about crime, and it’s an unfortunate ongoing hallmark of the genre.) We’re in a renaissance for period pieces, with some of the most interesting series making a deliberate shift away from the veneer of nostalgia toward a sense of secret history, concerned with the gears grinding beneath our picture of a tidy past. The New York City of The Alienist is also, then, automatically in conversation with shows like The Knick, with fascinating beats of historical specificity amid a sense of breathless chaos; whenever you happen to be alive, the future is barreling down on you so fast it might kill you.
These aren’t the only shows to have tried to put a literary, aesthetic polish on either an elusive killer or an elusive past. (You can pretty much pick your poison. Penny Dreadful? True Detective? Hannibal? Peaky Blinders? Yes.) That puts a lot of pressure on The Alienist before a single frame airs, even before it gets into the specifics of adapting a story that’s more than twenty years old. It would likely have made for gripping stuff if it had been produced then; as it is, it arrives dragging its social baggage, operating in the shadow of shows that have tried the same thing since.
The Alienist is a serial-killer hunt routinely stymied by ambient cruelty. Fetid living conditions, criminal politics, and financial despair keep our investigators neck-deep in crime: a rapidly developing city is swallowing up its most vulnerable residents. One leading edge of that chaos is progress—there’s a lady secretary in the police department now!—but the tension between that progress and the entrenched fears and prejudices of the past is hard to resolve. This, more than the plot, is the spine of the story.
Every so often, this episode hits that spot. The production design is solid, with Gilded Age luxury set cheek-by-jowl alongside grimy tenements, and a few particularly good shots make them feel effectively unreal. There’s the informal parade of child prostitutes from their shut-down-for-decency brothel to a new one (directly across the street), as neighbors gather to watch and the old-guard cops grumble about moving costs being deducted from their bribes. There’s the moody intro, with frantic police raising the alarm through the city. There’s the moment Kriezler and Moore chase a suspect into an empty building—a scene that works better than it should because it’s lit like a ghost story.
But for a first episode, there’s not much to hook you. Perhaps you can find some comfort that the very worst edges have been sanded away from the novel—the show, at least, seems to be aware it should try to make the murder of child prostitutes more pitiable than prurient, even if it has no idea how to treat the situation it’s inherited. But where everyone acts as if they’re under a cloud of dread, the only real suspense beneath the paint-by-numbers introductory beats is from a very committed score. The Alienist, in its attempt to answer all the calls on it, has made itself forgettable.
There’s some promise in the cast. Daniel Bruhl’s Dr. Kreizler avoids Sherlock Holmes arrogance or Miss Marple affability, which leaves him underwhelming but not nearly as obnoxious as he could be. Luke Evans is at his best when the joke is a little bit on him; John Moore is still largely expositionary, but there’s potential for the show to just lean in and make Moore the Gothic heroine. And the parade of secondary characters who make appearances this episode are a dutiful bunch.
That duty is harder for some than for others. Brian Geraghty is game as Theodore Roosevelt, but has an understandably hard time with lines like, “Just because you live by your own set of rules, Kriezler, does not mean that I do.” And that’s better than Dakota Fanning gets as Sara Howard, a New Woman who’s less a participant in her scenes with Moore than someone waiting to deliver a curt singing telegram and get out. A beat of her enduring humiliation at work, or staring down an empty table in a lavish dining room almost surreally detached from the street-level squalor, is more effective than any line she utters.
In some respects, this is just the usual hiccups you run into in a pilot; with so much to establish, this episode might always have seemed a little workmanlike. So far it’s a show too aware of what’s come before it to ignore its influences, but too aware of its source material to demand much trust from the novel’s audience. A tough position to be in; this opener shows the strain.
The show’s concerns about either failing itself or leaving its audience behind are in every overwritten piece of exposition, but the winner might be Kriezler’s closing fireside monologue: “Only if I become him—if I cut the child’s throat myself, if I run my knife through the helpless body and pluck innocent eyes from the horrified face, only then will I come to truly understand what I am...I must see life as he sees it, feel pain as he feels it, take the same path he takes. Yes, I must follow this wherever it goes, even if it leads me to the darkest pit of hell.” Doc, it’s the first episode. Leave something for the rest of the season, would you? (Here’s hoping.)
- There are several reasons not to introduce the first victim of the serial killer by lovingly zooming into the child’s empty eye socket. The Alienist ignored every last one of them.
- So far, the show is trying to solve some of the problems the novel had with the victims and discussions around gender. Can’t say the current approach is going to get us very far.
- “That’s what I admire about you, John. You represent the good that people want to believe is in all of us.” I desperately hope this dialogue settles down, because there’s only so much of this a show can take.
- Q’orianka Kilcher hasn’t had much to do yet, but as always, her screen presence is great. I’m excited for pretty much anything this series gives her to do. (I reserve the right to regret this later if things go south.)