Just when you thought peak TV had an option for every flight of fancy — from ’90s nostalgists to J.K. Simmons super-fans to the one sage shopper with a “Save the Transgender Fish, Save the World” t-shirt — enter “The Alienist,” an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s historical-fiction novel from 1994, that plays on TV like a “Sherlock Holmes” / “True Detective” crossover episode. Did the world need a gritty reboot of 221 B. Baker St. where Holmes is a doctor studying mental illness in wayward youths and Watson is a drunken, philandering illustrator who gets his kicks from kinky sex? No, but “need” isn’t a word that often accompanies modern TV programming. People wanted it (apparently), and after the first two episodes, viewers might still want more.
But they should think twice before continuing. “The Alienist” has its simple appeals, most notably in its sterling production design and salacious nighttime excursions, but they’re led by hollow characters and an unfounded desperation. The 10-episode limited series tries so hard to be shocking and relevant, it feels like “True Detective” Season 2; forcing import where none really exists, the final product doesn’t earn the prestige it strives to convey. (The comparison holds up off-screen, as well: Like the HBO series, “The Alienist” once had Cary Fukunaga attached to direct, but he only ended up as an executive producer.)
Even with its obvious markings of high-end television, it ultimately feels like puzzle pieces that don’t match up. “The Alienist” wants to fit in by standing out, and instead it does neither.
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Dr. Lazslo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) is the brilliant investigative mind driving the series. Known as an alienist because he studies people suffering from mental illness who, at the time, were thought to be “alienated from their own true natures,” Dr. Kreizler is a curt, my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy who just so happens to be well-connected with the police commissioner. Because of his expertise, Dr. Kreizler is called upon from time to time to provide his opinions in court, determining whether a person on trial ends up in jail or a mental institution.
But Ol’ Laszlo runs an institution of his own, which makes him exactly the right man for a new case: The Kreizler Institute is a safe haven for “damaged” children. Be they bedwetters or cross-dressers, any child who’s considered at odds with society standards has a place to explore their “issues” within Kreizler’s walls — and he’ll defend their honor to politicians, parents, and even priests. So when a young boy turns up dead, you better believe Dr. Kreizler is going to find out who’s behind it.
Why does a 19th century child psychologist have to track a serial killer? Because the police don’t care — or don’t want the killer found. At first, Dr. Kreizler has to do their job for them because the boy was a prostitute; not just a prostitute, but a prostitute who dressed like a girl. Whether the slain child actually identified as female or merely discovered a niche clientele is rather unclear so far, but Episode 2 indicates Dr. Kreizler and his motley crew of investigators will likely find out soon.
The team’s second-in-command is John Moore (Luke Evans), the aforementioned heavy drinker and crazy sex-er, who by day serves as an illustrator for The New York Times. He’s called upon by Kreizler to sketch the body of the dead boy, but his embellishment makes the work useless to the good doctor, and Moore struggles to find much purpose after that. Much more useful is Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning). She’s the first woman hired by the NYPD and serves as Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary (yes, that Theodore Roosevelt). A friend of Moore’s since she was a little girl, she agrees to help facilitate their investigation with information from the police (and, of course, she instigates a love triangle between Dr. Sherlock and Drunken Watson).
Throw in a pair of forensic scientists (whose methods, like fingerprinting, aren’t accepted yet) as well as the doctor’s black carriage driver (played by the great Robert Ray Wisdom), and “The Alienist” not-so-subtly enlists an aptly diverse group of outcasts. Other than Evans, whose sexual predilections aren’t outlandish enough to see him ostracized, everyone has one reason or another to be shunned by polite society, and Kreizler is their leader, savior, and defender.
Such a rallying cry for the oppressed and discarded would be better heard if “The Alienist” wasn’t so focused on the grisly nature of its crimes. Presenting the dismembered corpse of a 13-year-old boy for pure shock value is far enough — including a gratuitous shot that zooms into his empty eye sockets — but the characters also insist on talking about the brutality as if the audience didn’t see it for themselves. This obsessive persistence might have played better if scenes were shot with the knowledge that what’s unseen can be more frightening than what’s shown, but director Jakob Verbruggen (who helmed the 2016 “Black Mirror” episode “Men Against Fire”) is more interested in blunt force trauma than lasting psychological scares.
Add it to the list of mismatched themes and execution. “The Alienist” is all about the study of the mind, but it’s intent on making viewers see everything with our own eyes — be it the mutilated bodies or unprompted flashes to the killer cooking up chunks of flesh or talking to his next victim. It similarly wants us to invest in the characters as people just like us, rather than the derogatory labels assigned by their peers, but the first two hours don’t spend much time getting to know who they are or what’s driving their choices.
That being said, Evans is very good, in what’s likely his best performance to date, and Bruhl doesn’t over-invest in his character’s quirks; on paper, Dr. Kreizler is one step away from carrying a cane and monocle, but Bruhl keeps him streamlined and grounded — a character, not a caricature.
Such strong exterior touches could be adequately filled in later on, but so far the performances and production merely mask familiarities. Be it Sherlock Holmes, “True Detective,” “From Hell,” “Ripper Street,” or even more recent series like “Mindhunter,” this kind of story has been told before and told better. Serial killers are always intriguing because they feel so alien, but “The Alienist” can’t will itself to be anything more than an R-rated update.
“The Alienist” premieres Monday, January 22 at 9 p.m. on TNT.