Station: Historical Crime Drama
Destination: 1896, New York City
In December of 1994, Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist hit bookstores and would spend six months on The New York Times bestseller list. In my bookstore days circa 1998-2002, I remember selling many paperback copies of Carr’s novel to eager readers. The book was so popular Carr went on to write a sequel The Angel of Darkness and a third book is in the works.
“In the 19th Century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore know as alienists.”
Despite its popularity with readers, The Alienist faced a long road to adaptation. In 1993, the year before the book’s publication, Paramount Studios optioned the rights for the novel. It languished over the next couple of decades and went through various scripts and possible directors. Paramount was concerned about the budget and it seemed destined to never become a movie. Fast forward to 2015, when Paramount Studios revived an old branch of its business, Paramount Television. Looking for properties already at hand, they picked out The Alienist. Working with the production company Anonymous Content, they started on adapting Carr’s novel into a mini-series for TV.
Carr’s story, set in the Gilded Age in 1890s New York City, is a mixture of forensic science and psychology. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) is an alienist. In other words, he’s a psychologist who helps his clients with various emotional or mental problems. He mets New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) who was on scene to sketch a murder victim. The young boy, dressed in girl’s clothes, was brutally dismembered. His mystery behind his death reveals the seedy underbelly of New York City where young boys dress as girls at underground brothels to serve male clientele. And there is a serial killer on the loose targeting these young boys. Kreizler and Moore enlist the help of Miss Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the assistant to police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. The headstrong young woman is the key to connect Kreizler and Moore to police records that are just out of reach.
Episode 1: The Boy on the Bridge – Kreizler meets Moore to discuss the murder of the boy on the bridge. Moore introduced Kreizler to Howard. Not satisfied with Moore’s illustrations, Kreizler orders the murder victim exhumed. They meet with forensic experts the Isaacson twins, Lucius (Matthew Shear) and Marcus (Douglas Smith) to discover what they can about how the
Episode 2: A Fruitful Partnership – The Isaacson brothers discover the type of knife used by the killer and Kreizler and Moore learn of a new victim. Howard proves to be a powerful ally for Kreziler and Moore giving them access to Roosevelt’s office and his records. The main players meet to discuss findings and Moore dives into the dangerous world of these boy brothels.
For the most part The Alienist is very true to the era. I love the attention to setting and costume. I did have some reservations with the dialogue, especially a line uttered by Fanning “Are you out of your mind? I mean, honestly” which smacks of modern speak.
I was pleased to see such a strong female protagonist in Dakota Fanning’s Sara Howard. In what could have been a very male dominated story, her character brings a lot of balance to the story. Bruhl and Evans balance each other out with their adept performances.
The Alienist is a gripping psychological thriller that will shake viewers to their core. It blends crime, sexuality, psychology and mystery into a powerful drama. Some viewers, myself included, will be deeply disturbed by the sexualization of children and murder of young boys. If viewers could stomach Carr’s novel, they will find much in the TV adaptation.
The Alienist premieres tonight at 9PM EST on TNT. The limited series will go on for a total of 10 episodes.