Doppelgänger TV shows happen all the time. Series with similar set-ups, themes, or plotlines go head-to-head and, sometimes, only one survives — like in 2006, when two shows about the making of a fictional “SNL” squared off, and “30 Rock” trounced “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Other dueling dualities both thrive, like “ER” and “Chicago Hope,” and still more bomb equally, like “Cashmere Mafia” and “Lipstick Jungle” in 2008, or “Do Over” and “That Was Then” in 2002.
Being first to air isn’t always the deciding factor, but when you’re the second somber period drama to revolve around a dead baby — airing amid a global pandemic, no less — then you’re starting in a pretty deep hole. And “The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” just keeps digging, building most of its eight-episode mystery around murdered, kidnapped, or otherwise tormented children. Such a grisly predilection should sound familiar to anyone who caught HBO’s recent “Perry Mason” reboot, but while that graphic detective story offered an endearing lead performance, striking visuals, and a rebellious spirit fit for the moment, TNT’s sequel to its needlessly grim 2018 hit pales in comparison on all fronts.
Functioning much more like “The Alienist” Season 2 than a standalone entry in the so-called anthology series, “Angel of Darkness” picks up with Sara (Dakota Fanning) running her own detective agency, after becoming the first female employee of the NYPD during the original set of episodes. Staffed with women and surviving on unnecessary investigations (a lot of rich society types are paying good money to find out if their servants are stealing from them), Sara’s small business has been spending a majority of its resources trying to save a woman on death row after she was convicted of murdering a child whose body has yet to be found.
Her accusers are as cartoonish as villains come, not that anyone but Sara seems to notice. Modern day juries would convict these eyebrow-cocked caricatures in a heartbeat, but perhaps such obvious devilishness felt quirkier at the turn of the century. The doctor spends his days in packed lecture halls, conflating loose morals as scientific study, while his nights consist of sloppy surgeries to patients he could care less about. His chief accomplice is a particularly nuance-free Nurse Ratched-type, who quivers with rage as women give birth to their soon to be stolen babies, spitting out her contempt in a three-word catchphrase: oh, those “stupid, stupid, stupid” girls! The dim and dirty hospital may as well be an evil laboratory, perched on top of a mountain with lightning flashing from the pitch-black sky and thunder overshadowing the screams from within.
Kata Vermes / TNT
This place and the people within mark the tip of a nasty, misogynistic iceberg that serves as one of the few unique themes to “The Alienist” Season 2. “Angel of Darkness” expands Sara’s role not only by giving her her own agency (literally), but by positioning her fight, her arc, and the season itself as unheard women vs. an uncaring world. Sara listens to these mothers when no one else will and then fights for them. She does the same for herself, as the NYPD and various politicians scoff at a female detective, and the season features a few clever gender reversals when it comes to who saves who from a beating, who’s marrying who for money, and a couple more welcome moments of unexpected empowerment.
Unfortunately, Fanning’s sleepy, vacant expressions are ill-suited to carry the weight of an eight-hour drama, and many of the series’ pivotal moments are still cribbed from prestige TV’s “Dark and Gritty” playbook. Even if it’s nice that Sara saves the day instead of the big and burly John Moore (Luke Evans), her arrival is never a surprise and their fates are never in question. Similarly, what few quirks existed in the eponymous alienist’s investigatory techniques are all but banished in Season 2, as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) retreats to safer territory in his behavior, bullishness, and general antics. Where once stood a man to name a series after now stands a character Sherlock Holmes would size up and shut down with a sneer. (His main storyline involves a love interest who, believe it or not, has the same profession! It’s like there’s two of them! How remarkable!)
Outside its privileged, white cast of characters, “The Alienist” also makes fleeting efforts toward being more inclusive and addressing fresh perspectives. Set in 1897 on the brink of the Spanish-American War, one of the victims is a recent immigrant made wary by racially-charged headlines and suspicious glances in the park. But her story is never internalized, and her point of view never fully explored — it’s like she’s forgotten as the focus is again steered back to the detectives trying to help. The same could be said about a bar in Brooklyn and its Black owners, who become somewhat important to the proceedings, but the father-daughter duo played by Robert Wisdom and Brittany Marie Batchelder (returning from Season 1) are shockingly underwritten, as though their larger story was excised during post-production. (Maybe there was, at some point, a 10-episode plan that got cut to eight?)
The deficiencies in “The Alienist” Season 2 are only magnified by premiering so close to “Perry Mason.” Plot lines feel pre-calculated and overwrought, whether it’s the will-they-won’t-they romance between Sara and John, or the increasingly convoluted ways in which our team fails to apprehend the killer. (The finale is a ridiculous attempt to delay the inevitable.) Supporting characters are added and then dropped on a whim, as if their arcs were always a bridge to nowhere. And while the overt misogyny of 1897 is still a frustrating part of modern America, little about Sara’s quest, choices, or endpoint sheds new light on the struggle or magnifies any specific issues. “The Alienist” maintains its high production values — costumes by Rudy Mance and Ruth Ammon’s production design help retain the series’ meticulous elegance — but it’s still an empty, purposeless exercise in dramatic drudgery.
In a time when light, breezy TV is being savored, hard-to-watch prestige series have to earn their time. They need to stand out for the right reasons, and “The Alienist” — which was originally critiqued for feeling behind the times and overly familiar — still plays like the worse version of so many other dramas, not just “Perry Mason.”
“The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” premieres Sunday, July 19 at 9 p.m. ET with two new episodes on TNT.